The cops sometimes call them "throw-down" charges, a half-joking reference to the "Saturday Night Special" revolvers that bad police officers plant on unarmed suspects. Years ago, it was "vagrancy." Then it was "pedestrian in the roadway," "disorderly conduct," or "sleeping in public." In Dallas, it's "failure to i.d."
"Failure to i.d." is when somebody refuses to provide identification to the police. The problem is that under most circumstances, it's not really against the law.
Leonard Mitchell, a 37-year-old criminal-law student in night school at El Centro Community College, says two Dallas police officers got mad at him one hot day last July and told him to produce his identification. He quoted the law to them, pointing out that they had no legal right to demand identification.
The police do not have the right to demand identity papers from people who are not being arrested or detained as a witness. If somebody is already being arrested or detained for something else, then that person does have to produce identification. Under any circumstance, you're in trouble if you lie to a police officer. But Mitchell was right: You can refuse to identify yourself if you are not being arrested or detained for something other than refusing to identify yourself.
Since 1987, the Dallas City Attorney's Office has issued five separate legal opinions explaining to the police that they cannot make an arrest on an "original charge" of failure to i.d. That is, the police can't start with failure to i.d. and then tack on charges that have to do with what the person did after failing to produce i.d.
On the other hand, you and I both know what sort of outcome may result from quoting the law to two exasperated cops on a hot day in Dallas (four cops by the time the backups arrived).
It started small and got bigger. Mitchell and his wife got into a verbal beef with two police officers in southern Dallas over a fender-bender. He says he told the police that he had not witnessed the accident and then left the scene with their permission. He says he returned to check on his wife, who was still there arguing with the police. Then he left again.
He says the second time he left, a police officer pursued him. By the time the officer caught up with him, Mitchell had arrived at his place of work and was out of the car, talking to a coworker. The report shows that no radio calls were made to alert other officers that a pursuit was under way.
"The police officer asked me for my driver's license," Mitchell told me. "I said, 'Am I under arrest?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Am I being lawfully detained as a witness?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Have I committed a traffic violation?' He said, 'No.' So I said, 'Then you have no right to demand my identification.'"
The police cuffed him and tried to jam him into the back seat of a patrol car. He couldn't fit. Not wouldn't. Couldn't. Leonard Mitchell weighs 460 pounds.
While the police officers pushed and shoved to force him into the back seat of the car, Mitchell says he told them, "Please, sir, it's not that I don't want to get into the vehicle. I am unable to get into the vehicle."
Eventually, they did shoe-horn him into the car, but Mitchell, who was handcuffed behind his back, says he was screaming in pain and begging for mercy by the time they squeezed him into the back seat.
All of this, according to Mitchell, started with a charge of failure to i.d. The police officers involved in the case did not return my phone calls. Lt. Mark Hearn of the Internal Affairs Division discussed general IAD policy with me but declined to comment on this particular case.
The single piece of evidence most strongly supporting Mitchell's version of events is the police department's own summary of the incident, which shows clearly that the original charge against him was "Fail to I.D."
I said to Mitchell: "This is strictly a devil's advocate question. I'm not saying what you should do. But what about the argument that the cops might be having a really bad day, and that you should do exactly what they tell you to do and call them sir and ma'am and stuff like that because you don't want to make things worse?"
"Well," he said, "I'm a criminal law student, and I'm taking a course in which one of the teachers is [state District Judge] Manny Alvarez. He's always teaching us about people's rights as Americans. So shouldn't I defend my rights as an American?"