I’ve written before about abusive and possibly illegal police activity. The examples I cited featured ordinary citizens going about their daily lives. Reports emerged today of another possible example, this time involving an actress most famous for her role in Django Unchained, Daniele Watts.

There are conflicting reports on what actually happened before police arrived, but what is undisputed is that someone called police to report Watts and her boyfriend for possibly lewd behavior in the front seat of their car. By the time police arrived the couple had exited the car and were standing on the sidewalk.
The responding officer asked the two for identification. Watts’ boyfriend provided his but she refused, saying that she had done nothing wrong and did not need to provide identification. If you listen through the audiotapes in the news accounts, you can hear her boyfriend saying that he has her ID and then Watts sternly telling him not to give it to police.
There’s an additional angle here – Watts is black and her boyfriend is white. Watts is not, based on pictures of the incident, dressed for the red carpet. Her boyfriend suggested in an interview with Buzzfeed that the questions the police officers were asking him "seemed to imply that Watts was a prostitute and he was a client."
This is a story tailor made for the paparazzi and the tabloids, but the more lurid details are not what I want to focus on. My question is: were the police correct in detaining – arresting – Watts for failure to produce an ID?
I’m not a lawyer but a plain reading of Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevadasuggests that while Watts was compelled to give the officer her name she was not required to provide her driver’s license (or passport, which her boyfriend says at one point he has with him).
The facts of the Hiibel case are strikingly similar to Watts’ encounter. A deputy responds to a report of an assault, finds a truck parked on the side of the road with a man smoking outside and a woman sitting inside. The man refused to provide ID and was arrested, charged with obstructing an officer and fined $250. By comparison, Watts got off easy.
But let’s go back to the audiotape. The police officer, as far as I can tell, never actually investigated the incident. Watts’ identity was immaterial to his investigation – he responded to a call about two people performing a sex act in a car, the caller didn’t identify either of the people by name. You can hear the officer at several points during the encounter say that he "would be gone already" had Watts provided her ID.
Why? What does her identity have to do with the alleged crime? He was looking for a couple but didn’t know their names. How does her freedom hinge on the policeman finding out her name?
I suspect it’s because the officer never had any intention of investigating the alleged incident. He wanted to check for warrants or see if Watts did indeed have a history of arrests for prostitution. Once they finally obtained her ID, Watts was swiftly released and according to news reports no record of her detainment was made by police. I also suspect her release had something to do with her movie star status.
Once again, I can hear the objections – why didn’t she just give the cop her ID? Listen to her passionate answer. Listen as she tries to have her father – who she was on the phone with when police arrived – talk to the officer. Listen as she walks away and the officer says nothing to stop her, but has her cuffed and brought back to the scene by another patrol car.
This is a woman tired of being bullied by the government.
I have no idea what Daniele Watts’ politics are, but in these audio clips she does an excellent impression of a libertarian.
UPDATE: This story from the Daily Mail includes pictures of the pair while they were in their car. The pictures support Watts’ contention that she and her boyfriend were just kissing. Note that the door is open, the sidewalk is about 6 feet away and people are walking back and forth. They’d have to be pretty brazen to be openly having sex in this situation especially since, as I understand it, the studio where the actress works is very close to this scene.
Also note the officer’s quotation supports my conclusion that he wasn’t performing any kind of an investigation into the charges leveled in the original call placed to police. "I was trying to ID them and leave. Nobody wanted them arrested for having sex in public."
If he wasn’t performing an investigation, Watts was not required to provide him any ID. He wasn’t interested in what she did in the car, he was interested in what else she may have done in the past.
You may accuse me of nitpicking or being too hard on the police in this case, and you might have a point, but civil liberties are an incredibly important part of why the United States is the best country on earth. We aren’t forced to produce "papers" on the whim of a law enforcement officer. Watts certainly could have handled this incident better, but so, too, could have the policeman.
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