Fourth Amendment

An Unconstitutional Arrest for Refusing To Show ID to the Cops

Fourth Amendment advocates prevail in Wingate v. Fulford.


In an important win for Fourth Amendment advocates, a Virginia man's arrest for refusing to show identification to the police has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal appellate court.

The case is Wingate v. Fulford. George Wingate was driving in Stafford County, Virginia, in the early morning hours of April 25, 2017, when his car's engine light came on. A former mechanic, Wingate pulled over, popped the hood, and began checking things out. Stafford County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Fulford, who happened to be cruising by, noticed the parked vehicle and pulled over to offer his assistance.

That's when things took a turn for the worse for Wingate. According to the deputy's account, he became suspicious of Wingate and demanded to see some form of identification. Wingate, who had done nothing wrong, flatly refused. The officer's mic captured their exchange of words:

Wingate: Have I committed a crime?

Fulford: No. I didn't say you did.

Wingate: All right then.

Fulford: You're still required to—

Wingate: Am I free to go?

Fulford: —identify yourself.

Wingate: Am I free to go?

Fulford: Not right now, no.

Wingate: Am I being detained?

Fulford: You're not detained.

Wingate: Am I free to go?

Fulford: No.

Wingate: Am I being detained? If I'm not being detained, then I'm free to go.

Fulford: You're not free to go until you identify yourself to me.

Wingate was ultimately arrested for violating a Stafford County ordinance that made it a crime to refuse an officer's request for ID "if the surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable man that the public safety requires such identification." After the prosecutor dropped the charges, Wingate sued, arguing that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the unlawful detainment and arrest.

In a decision handed down last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed that Wingate's rights were violated. "To be sure, officers may always request someone's identification during a voluntary encounter," the court said. "But they may not compel it by threat of criminal sanction. Allowing a county to criminalize a person's silence outside the confines of a valid seizure would press our conception of voluntary encounters beyond its logical limits. We therefore decline to do so here."

If Wingate had been lawfully detained by the police, the 4th Circuit said, then the officer could require him to show ID. But that was not what happened here. In fact, as the 4th Circuit detailed, the case for detaining and arresting Wingate utterly failed to pass the smell test. For example, Deputy Fulford stated in a deposition that Wingate raised a "red flag" for him when Wingate exited his vehicle and approached the officer's cruiser. "But the notion that the driver of a broken-down vehicle creates suspicion of criminal activity by approaching the officer trying to render him aid, put candidly, defies reason," the 4th Circuit observed. "Although we generally defer to officers' training and experience, we withhold that deference when failing to do so would erode necessary safeguards against 'arbitrary and boundless' police prejudgments."

Likewise, the fact that Wingate was wearing all-black clothing was deemed "suspicious." Yet as the 4th Circuit noted, "wearing dark clothing is often as innocuous as following the latest fashion trends" and was no grounds for probable cause in Wingate's case.

One downside to the ruling from the standpoint of criminal justice reform is that Deputy Fulford was granted qualified immunity for Wingate's unlawful arrest. Under that controversial doctrine, government officials are generally shielded from being held civilly liable if their actions were not explicitly disavowed in a previous court decision. "Until today, no federal court has prescribed the constitutional limits of" the Virginia ordinance at issue, the 4th Circuit stated. Thus "a reasonable officer could infer—albeit incorrectly—that the [Fourth Amendment's] requirements did not apply."