Outrage continued to swell on Monday over the alleged racial-profiling of Daniele Watts at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. While few online commentators seem to have a problem taking sides, one legal question remains fuzzy: Did an LAPD officer have the right to demand identification from the “Django Unchained” actress simply because she was caught kissing her boyfriend in public?
If the situation turns out to be that simple, the answer would be absolutely not. “There’s no question that, in California, failure to provide identification upon an officer’s request is not, in and of itself, basis to detain or arrest someone,” Peter Bibring, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, told International Business Times.
Of course, the specifics of the situation are yet unclear. Watts, an actress who currently stars in the CBS series “Partners,” says she was harassed by LAPD officers for kissing her partner -- the celebrity chef Brian Lucas -- in a car parked near the CBS studio in Studio City. (Lucas wrote on Facebook that he believes she was mistaken for a prostitute.) Watts is black and Lucas is white. The LAPD said in a statement that officers were responding to a 911 complaint of indecent exposure inside a silver Mercedes-Benz.
Watts took to social media to tell her side of the story, and on Monday, she spoke with numerous media outlets, adamant that she was harassed, humiliated and handcuffed -- even though she and Lucas were doing nothing but showing a little PDA. Since the story broke, the actress has received an outpouring of support (for more on that, take a look at the trouncing the LAPD North Hollywood Division is getting on Facebook), but not everyone is on her side. The gossip blog TMZ posted an audio clip of the exchange, chastising Watts -- as only TMZ can -- for “playing the race and fame card.” What’s more, many online commenters have expressed their belief that Watts should have just complied with the officer’s wishes and showed her ID.
Indeed, in the audio clip, Watts can be heard telling the officer she has a publicist and saying she believes he is harassing her because of her race. But the argument between the two escalates when the officer demands to see Watts’ identification -- and she refuses.
The officer clearly believes his request is justified. “Somebody called, so it gives me the right to be here,” the cop can be heard saying. “It gives me the right to identify you.”
Watts disagreed. In the audio clip she can be heard saying, “I have the right to say no.” After some heated back and forth, the officer asks her bluntly, “Do you know what probable cause is?”
So what is probable cause, and does it matter? Bibring said it can matter, but he’s not so sure the officer had probable cause in this situation. “There are times when an officer is conducting an investigation and the person’s identity might be relevant to that investigation,” he said. “In this case, though, it’s difficult to see how her identification is relevant to any indecent exposure.”
Bibring points out that many states have stop-and-identify statutes on the books, but California is not one of them. Such laws essentially strengthen the ability of police officers to detain people and require that they identify themselves. The practice was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
Watts indicated in an interview with CNN that she may pursue legal action against the LAPD. Given that California has no stop-and-identify statute, state law might be on her side, but ultimately, a court may have to decide that. Either way, Bibring said, it’s important for people to know their rights, and for law-enforcement officers to understand the limits of their authority.
“Offers can always ask you anything,” he said. “They can ask you to come down the station with them, or ask to search your car. But they can’t order you to do those things unless they have adequate legal justification.”