Glenn Reynolds links a very thoughtful piece by Melanie Scarborough which brought back old memories for me. Apparently, Washington DC police are blocking off streets when they feel like it and then demanding ID from people who simply want to walk from place to place. Ms. Scarborough asks some good questions:

Which statute requires law-abiding citizens to produce ID to walk down a sidewalk? What law says that citizens must explain to police where they are going and why?
A call to the police departments general counsel asking that question was not returned. Unfortunately, there likely is some badly written statute that the Metropolitan police can contort into affording them sweeping powers — similar to the Secret Service’s ability to operate virtually unchecked by claiming it is protecting someone or something.

I can understand why the general counsel failed to call her back. If in fact there there is some badly written statute requiring law-abiding citizens to produce ID to walk down a sidewalk and explain to police where they are going and why, it is unconstitutional under a long line of United States Supreme Court cases.
In Brown vs. Texas 443 U.S. 47 (1979), the Burger court reversed the conviction of a man for:

refusing to comply with a policeman’s demand that he identify himself pursuant to a provision of the Texas Penal Code which makes it a crime to refuse such identification on request.

And in Kolender v. Lawson 461 U.S. 352 (1983), the court held that California Penal Section 647(e) (which “requires persons who loiter or wander on the streets to identify themselves and to account for their presence when requested by a peace officer”) was unconstitutionally vague:

The statute, as drafted and as construed by the state court, is unconstitutionally vague on its face within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to clarify what is contemplated by the requirement that a suspect provide a “credible and reliable” identification. As such, the statute vests virtually complete discretion in the hands of the police to determine whether the suspect has satisfied the statute and must be permitted to go on his way in the absence of probable cause to arrest.

In order for the police to justify a stop, there has to be some reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. These “stop and identify” laws are unconstitutional, and the police know it. In all probability, they are abusing their powers and hoping most citizens will comply.
Melanie Scarborough argues that citizens should refuse to comply with such “laws” and claims of authority:

Such laws are more dangerous than any group of protesters.
Keep in mind that the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of impediments to police. The Founding Fathers understood that a free society can exist only when there are strict checks on police powers. It is not supposed to be easy for cops to corral citizens as they do — and too few Americans object.
Instead of submissively behaving as if a policeman’s word is law, Americans should demand to know why their movements are being restricted. When a police officer capriciously demands to see identification, the proper response is “no.” That is not defiance toward authority; it is an obligatory defense of freedom.

I couldn’t agree more. When I was a kid, we used be horrified by movies depicting life under totalitarian states, and one feature they all had in common was the Gestapo/Stasi/KGB guy coming up to people at whim, and demanding, “Let me see your papers!”
Well, this is exactly what Ms. Scarborough is describing, and I think it’s appalling.
I helped work with Edward Lawson (who was arrested 15 times under 647(e) during the time I knew him) when I was a pre-law student, and I’m proud that I played a small part, as he handled the Kolender vs. Lawson case in propria persona before the ACLU finally got involved. Edward was the furthest possible thing from being a criminal; the problem was that the cops just plain didn’t like his attitude, his race, or his dreadlocks (which frightened cops in those days). If asked for ID, he would pull out his notebook and start writing down badge numbers — something which did not go over very well with people accustomed to having their authority go unquestioned. The thing was, he didn’t drink or do drugs or anything, so he was always clean, and it drove the cops crazy, because they are so accustomed to everyone being afraid and having something to hide. He also had a great, booming, deep voice which sounded like a Harvard professor from the 1930s on steroids, with perfect enunciation and a very erudite manner of speaking (which many police officers interpreted as making them look like ignorant louts). Basically, he defied the stereotypes, would politely and patiently refuse to cooperate, and never budged on his rights, no matter how long it took.
It takes a real dedicated kook to do stuff like that, and it took him many years of dedication to get the law struck down.
We need more such kooks.
MORE: As seen on YouTube!
As recently as May 18, 2007, Edward Lawson still attracts undue police attention. The encounter Edward describes with a police tactical anti-gang unit in El Segundo is so typical of the sort of thing that used to happen to him when I knew him, and it will give readers an idea of what I was talking about.

I was surprised to find it on YouTube, maybe I shouldn’t have been.
According to Edward, the police began the encounter by saying, “how many probation violations do you have?”
Says Edward, “It’s a cartoon. You’re trapped in this Saturday morning cartoon.”
Be sure to watch Part 2, in which they decide he’s a “gang member,” refuse to take a urine sample without explanation, take away his rented car, and finally tell him he “was” arrested for “being under the influence of a controlled substance.” (Edward’s “the last thing I am is a gang member” is a vintage classic.)
As for drugs, I knew and lived with Edward for years, and I can tell every reader that he did not take drugs. It’s a matter of principle with him — which Edward explains in Part 3. In part 3, Edward characterizes this as “racial profiling gone bad.” and I agree. It began as ordinary racial profiling, and was then aggravated by Edward’s refusal to fit the “profile.”
And finally, there’s Part 4.
“It has happened to me over and over and over.”
(Yes, it has. I remember it back in the 70s.)
“Does this bother me? I’ve become used to it. That’s worse than bothering me.”
“Any cop who wants to can make up any story he wants and any jury would believe it.”
Finally, he signed a form under duress in order to be released.
“These four deputies fabricated a crime against me because I was not the gang member they were looking for. How many more times are they going to do this on a daily basis?”
It’s all so ridiculous, and all so typical of the encounters I remember. I guess not much has changed in all these years. (I have long suspected that the primary problem in most of these incidents is that Edward is smarter than the cops.)
What gives cops the right to arrest people for being under the influence when they are not, and refusing to give them a blood test? Can the police just accuse sober people of being “under the influence” because they don’t like them? (Obviously they can.)
I remember walking down the street with Edward in Berkeley back in the 70s, when a police car drove by. In an ominous tone, the loudspeaker suddenly blared out (for no particular reason) “You’re not a student, Lawson!”
Trust me, cops just don’t like this guy. Not everybody does.
But what has that to do with law enforcement?
Apparently, everything.