Show Us Your Papers

The quintessential image of totalitarian societies is that of the police officer with the ability to stop any citizen on a street corner, at any time, for any reason, and demand to see “their papers.” In the Soviet Union, that meant showing the passport you needed to carry with you at all times even if you were only traveling between Moscow and the thankfully now renamed city of Leningrad.

In post 9/11 America, it sometimes seems as if we are moving closer to that kind of society, as this story out of Denver demonstrates.

DENVER — Deborah Davis’ refusal to show her identification to federal police at a bus stop has turned her into a cause celebre among privacy-rights advocates.

Mrs. Davis, a 50-year-old Arvada, Colo., grandmother of five, was handcuffed, placed in a police car and ticketed for two petty offenses by Federal Protective Services officers who were checking passengers’ identification Sept. 26 aboard a Regional Transportation District (RTD) bus at the Federal Center stop.

Think about this. This woman was on a commuter bus, which just happens to stop in front of federal office building, and the officers in question thought nothing of stopping the bus and checking the identification of everyone on board in the name of “security.”

What they were actually accomplishing remains unclear, though:

The officers barely glanced at the passengers’ ID cards and didn’t check them against a master list.

So, one day, Mrs. Davis just decided to say no:

Mrs. Davis produced her driver’s license once, but it rankled her. The next few times, she begged off, saying she had left her ID at home. Finally, an officer told Mrs. Davis that she would need to show proof of her identity the following Monday.


“I spent the weekend trying to decide if the Constitution had changed since I was in eighth grade, and I decided it hadn’t,” said Mrs. Davis, who has a son serving in the Army in Iraq.

The following Monday, after the officers boarded the bus, one of them “asked me if I had my ID with me, and I said, ‘Yes,’ ” she recalled. “Then he asked me if he could see it and I said, ‘No.’ ”

As you can imagine, the officers did not react kindly to this:

Mrs. Davis had been talking on her cell phone when the officers approached. “One of them grabbed my cell phone and threw it to the back of the bus,” she said.

“The next thing I knew, two big policemen jerked me out of my seat, handcuffed me and threw me in the back of the police car,” Mrs. Davis said. “They wrote the tickets and threw them on the ground.”

Now, I am a strong supporter of law enforcement officers when they are doing their job. Harrasing people, however, which is what this clearly amounted to, is not a valid part of law enforcement. What valid purpose was served by stopping the bus and checking everyone’s identification just because it happened to stop in front of a federal office building ? If a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his or her chest really was on the bus, stopping the bus in front of the building for an extending period of time would be precisely the wrong thing to do.

Along with the state of airline security which I wrote about yesterday, this is yet another example of a practice that is engaged in more for the symbolic purpose of making it look like something is being done than for any legitimate security purpose. In the process, America travels further down the line where a police officer can stop you on the corner on a whim and ask to see your papers.

There’s more on this story at Outside The Beltway and by Nick Gillespe and Jacob Sullum over at Hit & Run

Cross-Posted at Below The Beltway