Mimesis Law
5 July 2022

Edward C. Lawson: Walking While Black & Doing Something About It

September 13, 2016 (Fault Lines) – From 1975 to 1977, Edward C. Lawson was stopped by the police in California on fifteen different occasions. Lawson was a black man, with dreadlocks, a vegetarian, and someone who liked to walk. He walked almost everywhere he went, and he was observed walking numerous times by the San Diego police, who decided that he was “suspicious” and stopped him.

Each time, he was detained or arrested based on a mandatory identification statute in California that required people to produce identification to a police officer when requested to do so. The law allowed police officers to stop people, demand from them a reasonable account of what they are doing when they are “loitering” or “wandering.”[i] Lawson was arrested fifteen times, but only prosecuted twice, and only convicted once.

So Lawson sued in the U.S. District Court, alleging that the statute, California Penal Code Section 647(e), was unconstitutionally vague. Lawson had difficulty getting any legal assistance on the matter, and did most of the work himself. He would study at the local law library to learn both the substantive and the procedure law. He argued the case on his own behalf in a bench trial and won. The judge declared that the California law was unconstitutionally vague, but since the officers were acting in good faith, there were no damages.

So both sides appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the Ninth Circuit, Lawson won again, this time being represented by Robert H. Lynn. Again, the statute being used by the police was declared to be unconstitutionally vague, and again, the state appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, again held that the California law was too vague. Lawson was again representing himself, and the Court granted ACLU lawyer Mark D. Rosenbaum permission to present oral argument as amicus curiae. At the oral argument, Rosenbaum pointed out:

The consequence of [the statute] is that in California there is a internal passport requirement.[ii]

Rosenbaum then compared the case to Brown v. Texas[iii] and noted that California had a law that negated the reasonable suspicion requirements of Brown, and which allowed the police to demand ID whenever they felt like doing so. He pointed out that Justice White had, in his dissent in Terry v. Ohio,[iv] stated:

[T]he person stopped is not obliged to answer, answers may not be compelled, and refusal to answer furnishes no basis for an arrest. . . .[v]

The Court ruled in Lawson’s favor, affirming the decisions of the lower courts. Justice O’Connor stated:

[T]he statute vests virtually complete discretion in the hands of the police to determine whether the suspect has satisfied the statute and must be permitted to go on his way in the absence of probable cause to arrest. An individual, whom police may think is suspicious but do not have probable cause to believe has committed a crime, is entitled to continue to walk the public streets “only at the whim of any police officer” who happens to stop that individual under § 647(e).[vi]

So the Supreme Court struck down the law—and police continued to arrest people for not identifying themselves. A black professor with a Ph.D. and dreadlocks was waiting for a bus to go home from his job at the University of California – San Diego School of Medicine and was confronted and asked for identification in 1987. Even though the professor provided his university ID and a French ID card, both with his name and photo, and even though the officer knew that the suspect he was looking for had a different name, the officer arrested the professor.

Lawson was arrested in Beverly Hills on March 29, 1993 after being stopped for “looking suspicious” to one of the residents and refusing to identify himself to the officer who stopped him.[vii] He was arrested again in 2007, this time by Las Angeles deputy sheriffs based on the same law.[viii] Lawson says that it was just more of the same. I tend to agree with him.

In Texas, there is case after case where police demand identification from people they come into contact with, but who they have not yet arrested. In Galveston, police arrested a young black man who refused to identify himself to a sergeant who asked for his information. All the individual was doing was recording video from a public sidewalk. The sergeant was subsequently indicted after the sergeant broke into the individual’s car to try and find his identification.

In Colorado Springs, another black individual who was a passenger in a vehicle refused to identify himself, was pulled from the car and taken to the ground. He was charged with “obstructing an officer” for his refusal. Passengers, who are not suspected of committing a crime are not generally required to identify themselves to officers.

This isn’t going to change. Police are going to continue to ask for ID, and they are going  to continue to make arrests when people refuse, regardless of what the law actually states. It’s a control issue, and officers don’t like individuals who stand up for their own rights. Until departments start facing consequences for these types of actions, they’ll continue to make these arrests.

Edward Lawson understood that, and he took action to try to rectify it. I view his actions on the same level as the actions of Clarence Gideon, of Gideon v. Wainwright[ix] fame. In both cases, they won, and in both cases, unless forced to follow the law, the government ignored it. But people don’t know Lawson like Gideon and don’t see the problem with police actions. That needs to change.

[i] “Loitering” means “lingering in … designated places for the purpose of committing a crime as opportunity may be discovered”, while “wandering” means “movement for evil purposes.” Lawson v. Kolender, 658 F.2d 1362, 1365 (9th Cir. 1981) (internal citations omitted, quotation marks in original).

[ii] Kolender v. Lawson, “Oral Arguments” at 31:10, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1982/81-1320 (last visited Sep 13, 2016).

[iii] Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979), which stated police were not allowed to stop and demand identification in Texas unless the police have reasonable suspicion that the subject stopped had committed or was about to commit a crime.

[iv] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

[v] Id. at 34 (White, J., concurring).

[vi] Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 358 (1983).

[vii] The charges were for failing to present his driver’s license, giving false information to a police officer, and obstructing and delaying a police investigation.

[viii] Although ruled unconstitutional in 1983, the law remained on the books in California until 2008, when the legislature finally repealed the law.

[ix] Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

7 Comments on this post.

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  • Jason Peterson
    13 September 2016 at 10:17 am - Reply

    At what point do false arrests start becoming kidnappings?

    • Greg Prickett
      13 September 2016 at 10:59 am - Reply

      You do realize that none of these were false arrests under the law, don’t you?

      There is a distinction between a false arrest and an unconstitutionally vague law. In the former, there is no probable cause to arrest but an arrest is made anyway. In the second, there is probable cause to arrest because the law was poorly constructed.

      As another issue, a bad arrest by a police officer is almost never going to meet the elements of a kidnapping offense, either under most kidnapping statutes or common law.

      • Jason Peterson
        13 September 2016 at 11:07 am - Reply

        “So the Supreme Court struck down the law—and police continued to arrest people for not identifying themselves.”

        A law is still a law after the SCOTUS strikes it down?

      • Ben
        13 September 2016 at 11:38 am - Reply

        Once the Supreme Court struck down that law, it ceased to be a law. If you arrest someone under a no-longer-valid law, you lack probable cause that a crime has been committed, because there is no such crime anymore.

        • Greg Prickett
          13 September 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

          Correct, at which point you would have a false arrest. But if the officers arrest you for a different penal code offense for the same reason, it is not a false arrest.

          What you see in a lot of states is an arrest for “obstructing” or for “interfering” with police, instead of failure to identify. When Lawson was arrested in Beverly Hills, for example, he was charged with failing to display his DL and will obstructing police; he was not charged under PC 647(e).

  • McLynas
    14 September 2016 at 12:27 am - Reply

    I think that any officer that falsely arrests an individual should receive a mandatory sentence of AT LEAST the maximum sentence of the law they falsely charged the person with. That would put a stop to false arrests.

    • Greg Prickett
      14 September 2016 at 3:04 pm - Reply

      That’s never going to happen, nor should it.

      Police can be controlled by the politicians, who are controlled by the voters. It’s easier to fix that than to come up with a solution that will never be implemented.

      Besides, in most states the officer can already be charged with a crime for violating someone’s rights, and the Feds can always prosecute under 18 USC 242. They just never do it, because the politicians have not made it a priority.