As I understand it, in the USA it is the law that if a police office gives one a lawful order it is a crime to not comply with that order. What does the police officer need to do to identify them as a police officer for this law to apply? Is any statement that they are police sufficient, and people are required to believe anyone who says they are police? Is there a specific form of words they must use, perhap similar to the UK arrest requirements? Is it a question of the state of mind of the subject of the order, perhaps similar to the legal standards of preponderance of evidence or beyond reasonable doubt?

The case that made me think of this was the case of a child who was shot by a police office who was in the back seat of the car. In this case it would be impossible for the subject to see the officer, so would have no way of knowing if the speaker was police. I am also reminded of the federal police in portland who drove around in unmarked cars wearing camouflage pattern clothing that makes me think of the proud boys more than police officers. There are also many movies in which the undercover police protagonists will wave a gun and a badge around and expect people to do what they say. In all these cases it would appear to be legitimate doubt as to the identity of the police officer. What are the requirements of a member of the public in such a situation? At which point does it become a crime to not comply with orders given by someone who is not obviously a police officer but claims to be?

The United States is the most prominent country with such a law, and the one I am most interested in. The situation in other countries with similar laws would also be interesting, especially if they contrast with the USA.

This is different from this question as that is about how do I tell if an order given is a legal order. This is different from this question as it is about a requirement for undercover officers to identify themselves, not about the threshold for the requirement for the public to follow orders.

  • The US is not a monolithic legal block: it is 50 states, federal law and about two dozen larger areas of native American law.
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 8:14

1 Answer 1


Identification is require only in Alaska, California, Oregon and also, and Pennsylvania. In these states, if a person is uniformed (AK,CA,PA) or wearing a badge (AK,OR), or if the defendant "knows" that the person is an officer, they are penalized if they do not obey the order. In other states, you are simply penalized if the person giving the order is a police officer. In those states where there is no statutory limit on police power to give commands, it depends on what the courts have ruled. In North Carolina, following Glenn Robinson v. Acker there is a burden on off-duty officers to establish their authority, and

an officer may not assume that others will know he is a police officer where he simply states as much and flashes "something," while wearing civilian clothing, working off-duty, and acting "out of control."

But in Alabama, following Sly v. State, 387 So. 2d 913 referring to the statutes,

Neither section makes any reference to whether the peace officer was on or off duty

so there is no requirement to prove that you are an officer.

The majority of states give this power to officers with traffic control powers. Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Utah grant that power with no restriction, and Alaska, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina and Vermont limit police command power to specific circumstances (traffic or emergencies). This article lists various cases in states that bear on the question – there is no clear and uniform law on the matter in the US. Some courts have limited the power to traffic related matters, others (where it is not part of the statutory law) have extended the power to outside of traffic stops. For example, in Ohio which is in the majority "can issue traffic tickets" set of states, State v. Thigpen, 62 N.E.3d 1019 ruled that

nothing in the plain language of R.C. 2921.331(A) limits it solely to orders or signals of police officers actively engaging in traffic direction, control, or regulation.

It is more likely that if the statute refers to willfully failing to comply, that creates some obligation for the officer to identify themselves.

To simplify this, here are a few ordered generalizations. In 4 states, there is some requirement to be identifiable as a police officer via a uniform or badge, as noted above. In some states, it is a crime to willfully fail to comply – not complying with an officer whom you have reason to believe to be a LEO (e.g. he is wearing his uniform). Otherwise, if the person is in fact an officer, it is a crime to not comply.

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