Our criminal justice system can be distilled down to the most basic of ideas: We are innocent until proven guilty.
That basic principle means it is incumbent on the government to convince a jury of our peers, beyond a reasonable doubt, that we committed a crime, rather than the other way around. As citizens, we bear no burden to prove our innocence.
In practice, this doesn’t always happen, even if that fundamental concept is enshrined in our Constitution. Such was the case of Tim Haid, a Caper man who police arrested in 2017.
Haid’s supposed crime? He refused to identify himself to police. And why did police want his name? Because he was sitting in a parked car at night.
One night in 2017, officers responded to East 14th Street in Casper after someone called police, reporting a suspicious vehicle. More specifically, a citizen reported a truck had parked on the street for about an hour, then moved down the street before parking again. An officer, when responding to the call, didn’t know of any crimes that had been committed or were about to be.
That’s because Haid wasn’t committing a crime. He was waiting for his girlfriend (she hadn’t yet arrived home), which he told the officer. He told the officer to run the truck’s plates, which the officer did and found no red flags. What Haid didn’t tell police was his name. And because of that, they arrested him.
That in itself is concerning. So is what happened next. A circuit court judge, after a trial, sentenced Haid to a jaw-dropping two months in jail for failing to identify himself to officers investigating a guy parked in a truck.
Thankfully for Haid, the case was appealed and a higher court threw it out. That court concluded that police did not have a reasonable suspicion that he was committing a crime. The officer knew only that a resident had seen a truck they didn’t recognize on a street, that the truck had not been reported stolen and that the person listed as the owner had no active warrants for his arrest.
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Because there was no reasonable suspicion, the encounter was considered consensual. Therefore, Haid was under no obligation to give him name.
Some might argue that all of this could have all been avoided if Haid has simply handed over his driver’s license. Why make it difficult for police, this reasoning holds.
The answers lies in that bedrock idea of presumed innocence. Haid was a man in a truck waiting for his girlfriend. And if a person wants to sit in a truck for an hour waiting on their significant other, they shouldn’t have to prove that they’re not a criminal. They shouldn’t have to waive their constitutional rights.
His unlawful arrest was no small matter. Haid spent the night in jail and faced another two months behind bars. The city recently agreed to settle a civil claim connected to the arrest for $149,000.
As an editorial board, we’ve praised Casper police repeatedly in the past few years. The department has improved how it communicates with the community, and we sincerely appreciate that police take seriously neighborhood fears about a suspicious truck. But once the officer discovered that there was no crime being committed, the matter should have been dropped, even if the man inside the truck didn’t want to turn over his identification.
There is some good to come out of this. As part of the deal, the Casper Police Department will change its policies to explicitly state that a person does not, in a consensual encounter with police, have to provide their name or identification to police. Hearteningly, a police spokeswoman told the Star-Tribune that “no one should ever be subjected to treatment as was alleged in this case.”
She’s right. We hope that this lesson is one that is heeded, by police, by prosecutors and by judges. A man minding his own business shouldn’t have to prove he’s not a criminal.