Let's say I have an encounter with a police officer. That officer has asked me to do something I would normally be expected to comply with, such as get out of my car during a traffic stop or to give my name. Rather then immediately complying I request to see their id and take a photo of it, as proof of the identity of the officer, first. Could I be guilty of not complying with the officers orders by demanding identity first?

Presume this is a non-emergency situation, No one has reason to believe there is a danger of immediate harm if I don't comply with the officers demands. Similarly the police are not currently in pursuit of a criminal, trying to secure evidence that is likely to be destroyed, or any of the other situations that may justify police rushing standard procedures.

  • 2
    There is actually advice on how to do this with an unmarked car tries to pull you over. Real cops will generally be okay with you continuing on but with your hazard lights engaged, to the next well light public area. Many of these were communicated in the early-mid 90s as criminals would use slap on roof sirens to try and convince motorists to pull over.
    – hszmv
    Jan 12, 2021 at 17:34
  • I have also heard it is acceptable to call 911 and ask their help determining the legitimacy of the individual in the car behind you.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 12, 2021 at 22:13

1 Answer 1


First, no, given the wording of the question: "by demanding identity first". US courts have never held that citizens must immediately comply with non-emergency orders free of back-talk. Let's assume that the refusal is conditional: "I won't comply until you show me your ID". In most (?) jurisdictions, there is no obligation imposed on police to show ID, though I am excluding home searches. There is a policy requirement in Seattle (§7) that

Employees may use a Department-issued business card that contains their name and serial number to satisfy the request for the information. Employees will also show their department identification card and badge (sworn) when specifically requested to do so. Exception: Employees are not required to immediately identify themselves if:

  • An investigation is jeopardized
  • A police function is hindered
  • There is a safety consideration

Massachusetts has a law saying that "Such identification card shall be carried on the officer's person and shall be exhibited upon lawful request for purposes of identification".

In the domain of search and seizure law, the court reasoned in Doornbos v. Chicago, regarding a seizure by plainclothes police that

Absent reasonable grounds to think that identification would present an unusual danger, it is generally not a reasonable tactic for plainclothes officers to fail to identify themselves when conducting a stop. The tactic provokes panic and hostility from confused civilians who have no way of knowing that the stranger who seeks to detain them is an officer...

it is usually unreasonable for a plainclothes officer to fail to identify himself when conducting a stop or frisk

As you can see, this identification requirement is tied to constitutional search and seizure limits for which there is voluminous case law regarding what is "reasonable". The scenario that you propose is fairly far from the kind of case identified in Doornbos: is the order from a uniformed officer in a police vehicle? That seems to be what you're describing.

Now we must inquire as to the legality of the order. Picking on Washington state law, RCW 46.61.015 requires that

No person shall willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any duly authorized flagger or any police officer or firefighter invested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic.

RCW 46.61.021 requires a person driving to stop for a LEO, and to identify himself: failure to comply is a misdemeanor. There is no statutory provision that a person can refuse to obey these (or similar sections in the motor vehicle title) until the officer provides ID.

A police officer (in Washington: and I suspect any other state) does not have unrestricted authority to give people orders, there are specific statutory circumstances giving police the power to order people to do things. Obstructing a police officer is a crime, but obstructing an officer is where one "willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties", and not "doesn't cooperate". There is a provision, RCW 9a.76.030 where

A person is guilty of refusing to summon aid for a peace officer if, upon request by a person he or she knows to be a peace officer, he or she unreasonably refuses or fails to summon aid for such peace officer

and the "knows to be a peace officer" clause implies either that the officer is uniformed, or has provided identification. Finally, we have "failure to disperse" when a person

congregates with a group of three or more other persons and there are acts of conduct within that group which create a substantial risk of causing injury to any person, or substantial harm to property; and (b) He or she refuses or fails to disperse when ordered to do so by a peace officer or other public servant engaged in enforcing or executing the law.

These laws are attuned to emergency needs, thus outside the penumbra of your scenario.

In short, the primary question must be, when can police lawfully give you an order that you must obey, which narrows the matter down to traffic-related matters. The seizure must be reasonable: it is reasonable to require a person to stop for a uniformed officer. Reasonability does not entail that all officers must produce ID when effecting a seizure, but this may be the case with plain-clothes officers. Even when in Seattle with a departmental policy requiring officers to identify themselves, an officer's failure to identify does not render the seizure illegal.

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