In a general sense, in the United States, how would the court system proceed in a criminal case against a person who cannot be and refuses to be identified?

For example: a person is arrested and charged with a fairly significant offense (let's say armed robbery). However, he will not give his name and has no identification on his person, police cannot discover his identity through their systems (fingerprinting, etc), and no one comes forward who knows him.

How would the average court system handle this case?

If it is related, how would the defendants Fifth Amendment rights apply to their decision to refuse to identify themselves? Are they within their rights to do so throughout the entirety of the proceedings, or at some point are they at risk of being in contempt?

Lastly, would this hypothetical unnamed defendant carry a criminal record after they served their sentence if found guilty, and their identity never discovered, and how could that be possible?

2 Answers 2


There are cases out there like Unnamed Petitioners v. Connors, State v. Unnamed Defendant, Williams v. Unnamed Defendant; there have been indictments of John Doe who was only identified via a DNA profile. Not knowing the actual name of a person wouldn't pose a problem per se, and it seems that when the name is not known, John or Jane Doe is generally filled in. There was in instance a year ago in the UK where rioters who refused to identify themselves, and prosecution decided to drop the case.

  • Wait, that last line though.... So when in doubt, plead the 5th, and you have a reasonable expectation of not being held in contempt (in the US)?
    – Mazura
    Oct 28, 2016 at 3:54
  • @Mazura Right, you can invoke your right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions when asked about your identity. You probably won't get any leniency if you do, but they can't really compel you to reveal your "true" identity, either. Oct 28, 2016 at 4:19
  • What about after they have served their sentence? Would John Doe carry a criminal record? I would imagine that would be a conundrum.
    – user3580
    Oct 28, 2016 at 13:47
  • @Moses Not really. Once you've been admitted to prison (or even arrested, depending on the jurisdiction), you will have had fingerprints and possibly other biometrics taken. If you get charged again after your release, you can be linked to previous convictions with those biometrics, so in that sense your "real" identity is irrelevant. An unidentified person can still be linked to previous convictions, which is what really matters as far as our legal system is concerned. Oct 29, 2016 at 1:56

In the US, at least, it happens from time to time that a person is tried, convicted, sentenced and served out a prison term without being identified.

It's not really handled any differently from cases where the defendant's identity is known, though.

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