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Fed appeals court says refusal to identify no cause for arrest
Saturday, Apr 5, 2008

By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK - A police officer does not have the authority to arrest someone for refusing to identify himself when he is not suspected of committing a crime, a federal appeals panel ruled Friday.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis reversed an Arkansas federal judge's ruling and ordered a new hearing in a Benton County man's lawsuit challenging his arrest for refusing to show his identification during a traffic stop.

"It is amazing how many times I have had people convicted for doing the same thing," said Rogers attorney Doug Norwood. "You have to have a reasonable suspicion that the individual person is either committing a crime or about to."

Norwood filed the original lawsuit on behalf of Richard M. Stufflebeam of Lowell.

Stufflebeam was a passenger in his grandson's car in May 2003 when the vehicle was stopped by a state trooper. The driver was not issued a citation during the traffic stop. When Trooper Jeff W. Harris asked the grandfather for identification, he told the officer he did not have to show any ID.

"It was an afterthought," Norwood said. "The officer asked Mr. Stufflebeam for his ID and he said 'no.'"

The trooper "returned to his vehicle and requested backup," the court said.

"When two additional officers arrived, Harris asked Stufflebeam to exit the vehicle," the ruling said, adding that Stufflebeam was handcuffed and placed in the back of the trooper's cruiser. He was taken to jail and charged with obstructing governmental operations.

The prosecutor's office later dismissed the charge in district court and Stufflebeam filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Harris, alleging the trooper had no probable cause to arrest him.

U.S. District Court Judge Jimm Hendren dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the trooper had qualified immunity as a police officer and that Stufflebeam failed to state a claim. Stufflebeam appealed to the 8th Circuit.

In its ruling Friday, the federal court panel referenced a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that "an officer may not arrest a suspect for failure to identify himself if the request for identification is not reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the stop."

There was no evidence Stufflebeam was trying to obstruct justice when he refused to identify himself, the appeals court said.

"Thus, the primary question ... is whether Arkansas law permits a police officer to arrest a person for refusing to identify himself when he is not suspected of other criminal activity and his identification is not needed to protect officer safety or to resolve whatever reasonable suspicions prompted the officer to initiate an ongoing traffic stop. We conclude it does not," the court said.

The court also said the state trooper did not have qualified immunity from the lawsuit under state statute.

Qualified immunity protects public officials "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have," the court said, adding that the trooper "acted contrary to the plain meaning" of the state statute.

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