New crime of obstructing identification in Illinois

by Sami Azhari on September 29, 2011

Obstructing Identification

When a police officer conducts a traffic stop on a person for a vehicle code violation, or detains him on suspicion of committing a crime, the officer has a right to ask the person to identify himself. If the person provides a false identity, such as giving a family member’s name, he can be arrested for obstructing identification. The crime is found in the criminal code at 720 ILCS 5/31-4.5. This offense was only recently put on the books in Illinois.

The law in Illinois used to say that giving a false name was a Class 4 felony of obstruction of justice. The serious nature of the charge caused problems. Often, a person stopped in a vehicle or detained for questioning may have no criminal record and try to get out of trouble by giving a false name or date of birth. Under the old law, doing so was a felony offense with penalties of 1-3 years prison and permanent conviciton. A felony conviction can never be sealed.

Prosecutors who were reasonable would reduce the charge to a Class A misdemeanor by calling it attempt obstruction of justice. This would allow the offender to get supervision and avoid a conviction.

State law makers changed the law so that, starting January 1, 2010, giving a false name became obstructing identification.

These charges arise frequently in traffic stops where the driver does not have a valid license or his driving privileges are suspended or revoked. In other cases, the driver may have a warrant for his arrest and give a false name to avoid being taken into custody.

The law says that giving a false name, date of birth, or even false address is a crime. This Class A misdemeanor has a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and fine of $2,500. The defendant can receive supervision, but even supervision gives a person a criminal record. (There is no guilty plea that ‘won’t go on your record,’ as many lawyers say.)

Obstructing identification applies to any person. So in the example of a traffic stop, the passenger can be charged for giving a false name during a warrant check.

But requirements of 720 ILCS 5/31-4.5 apply only in three situations:

  1. A lawful arrest.
  2. A lawful detention (which includes a traffic stop).
  3. Questioning of a witness to a crime.

In every case, the arrest, traffic stop, or detention must be lawful. If the defendant can prove the police violated the 4th Amendment because they had no probable cause, for instance, then the charge can be dismissed.

The law could be problematic because no other statute requires the witness to a crime to cooperate with the police, but this one requires the witness to provide a true name, if that witness identifies herself. A witness who does not cooperate cannot be charged with obstruction. But here, a witness who provides a false identity can be charged.

Section 31-4.5 seems to avoid causing free speech problems (1st Amendment) because it does not require a person to provide his or her name under any circumstances. Under the 5th Amendment, no person can be compelled to incriminate himself. This means a witness can plead the 5th, and a person arrested has the right to remain silent.

The United States Supreme Court has said that a motorist who refuses to speak at all when pulled over by law enforcement has a 1st Amendment right to do so. That decision was based on the laws of another state. But this issue has not been up to the Illinois Supreme Court.

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