Can You Be Arrested For Not Showing Your Driver’s License?

Image courtesy of kenfagerdotcom

Imagine you and your friends are driving somewhere in two cars. Your friend in the other car gets pulled over for a minor traffic violation, so you pull over to wait. Then an officer comes to your door asking to see your license. If you refuse to produce the license because you’ve done nothing wrong, can you be arrested? Depends on which judge you ask.

In June 2013, an Arizona man named Tarahawk Von Brinken was driving in Tucson when his friend in the other car was pulled over by a police officer because his headlights weren’t on. The friend pulled into a bowling alley parking lot, and Von Brinken followed, even though police had made no indication that he also needed to stop.

While his friend was talking to the police, Von Brinken got out of his car to see what was going on. The officer ordered him back into the vehicle, saying he wasn’t done sorting out the traffic stop. After Von Brinken returned to his car, that’s when the officer asked him for his license.

Since he hadn’t been pulled over, but was just waiting for a friend, Von Brinken refused to show the officer his license. That’s when the officer claimed that Von Brinken’s headlights did not comply with U.S. Department of Transportation standards, and that Von Brinken would be arrested if he failed to produce his license. Again, Von Brinken refused.

Around this time, a second Tucson police officer arrived on the scene. The two officers detained Von Brinken, citing an Arizona state law as giving them the authority to make the arrest.

We’ll note now — because it becomes key to the dispute later — that this particular law only appears to require a driver to produce their license after the driver has “knowingly fail[ed] or refuse[d] to bring the operator’s motor vehicle to a stop after being given a visual or audible signal or instruction by a peace officer or duly authorized agent of a traffic enforcement agency.”

After he was arrested, police found nothing illicit in Von Brinken’s vehicle or on his person. Similarly, he had no outstanding warrants or charges. Even so, he spent the evening in jail.

Von Brinken later brought a civil suit against the two officers, accusing them of — among other allegations — unlawful arrest and common law false imprisonment.

In Sept. 2015, a U.S. District Court judge granted summary judgment [PDF] in favor of Von Brinken on these two allegations, concluding that Von Brinken’s refusal to show his license was not probable cause for arrest, meaning the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The police officer who pulled over Von Brinken’s friend argued that he had noticed Von Brinken’s allegedly non-compliant headlights but chose to pull over the friend because his headlights were out and that posed a significant safety threat as it was after 10 p.m.

However, the judge found multiple problems with this argument. First, as mentioned above, the Arizona statute that allows police to arrest a driver who doesn’t show their license requires that the driver must have resisted being pulled over for a traffic violation. The police made no effort to pull Von Brinken over; his decision to stop and wait for his friend was voluntary. It was within the officer’s authority to write a ticket for the lights at that point, but not to arrest Von Brinken.

Second, said the District Court judge, the alleged offense of having a non-compliant headlight is a civil traffic violation and, under state law, “does not subject one to arrest for criminal conduct.”

The court concluded that the officers were not immune from being held liable for the arrest and imprisonment charges, but that there was no evidence to support Von Brinken’s claim that the City of Tucson should also be held liable.

But that’s not the end of the story. The officers appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the dispute in October. Last week, in a 2-1 decision [PDF] a Ninth Circuit panel reversed the lower court ruling and concluded that the officers were indeed immune because Von Brinken’s refusal to show his license constituted probable cause.

The two-judge majority explains that the officers enjoy immunity from unlawful arrest and imprisonment claims unless Von Brinken can show two things: First, that the officers violated a statutory or constitutional right, and then that this right was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

The majority says that the standard for making such a determination is whether or not “every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right,” and that the officer who arrested Von Brinken “could reasonably believe” that the state headlight law “required that Von Brincken produce his driver’s license” when asked, and that the law about showing your license made Von Brinken’s refusal a criminal act.

The unpublished opinion explains that the officers “could reasonably believe” that they “had the authority to arrest Von Brincken, and that the arrest would not violate Von Brincken’s Fourth Amendment rights.” And because of this belief that their conduct complied with the law, and because “any unlawfulness was not clearly established… they are entitled to qualified immunity.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas argues that the District Court was clearly correct in its conclusion that the officers’ actions ran afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

Thomas notes that the officers don’t dispute that Von Brinken was not pulled over as a result of a traffic stop, but did so because his friend had been pulled over. As such, says the judge, “the arrest for failure to produce the driver’s license lacked probable cause and was therefore unconstitutional. To hold otherwise, as the majority does, turns a traffic offense statute into a ‘stop and show me your papers’ statute.

As for the majority’s contention that it was unclear at the time of the arrest as to whether the officers’ actions would be unlawful, Judge Thomas fires back that “the right to be free from unreasonable seizures was clearly established at the time of Von Brinken’s arrest.”

[via Courthouse News]

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