WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court today struck down California's vagrancy law that let police officers stop and demand identification from a person even if he is not linked to a crime.
The 7-2 ruling was a victory for a black man nicknamed the 'I-5 stroller,' whose noctural ramblings through all-white neighborhoods between San Diego and Los Angeles led to his being stopped and questioned 15 times by police.
Lawyers for Edward Lawson, 36, said the statute compelling identification is 'punishing silence,' and resulted in arbitrary harassment and arrests, and discrimination against minorities.
The justices upheld a federal appeals court ruling that overturned the state vagrancy statute because it turned 'otherwise innocent conduct into a crime.'
Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the law 'encourages arbitrary enforcement by failing to describe with sufficient particularity what a suspect must do in order to satisfy the statute.'
The 'full discretion' police have to decide whether a person furnishes 'credible and reliable' identification 'furnishes a convenient tool for harsh and discriminatory enforcement by local prosecuting officials, against particular groups deemed to merit their displeasure,' Mrs. O'Connor wrote.
Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist dissented from the ruling.
In other actions today, the court:
-Ruled 8-1 in a Texas case that children of illegal aliens, even if they are U.S. citizens because they are born in this country, can be denied free public education.
-Upheld Congress' franking privilege allowing senators and representatives to send free mailings to their constitutents.
-Let stand a ruling that prevents Washington state from closing its borders to radioactive waste. California's vagrancy law allows police to arrest a person who refuses to show identification, if he 'loiters or wanders upon the streets or from place to place without apparent reason or business.'
Lawson, a tall, thin man who wears his hair in shoulder-length, braided 'dread locks,' challenged the law after he was stopped by police 15 times between March 1975 and January 1977. He was usually the only black in all white areas.
Police used the vagrancy law to stop him each time, but he was prosecuted only twice and convicted once.
Lawson, who now lives in San Francisco, filed suit under federal civil rights law, claiming the statute allowed police to harass him and violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
A federal district judge ruled in Lawson's favor, declaring that when a police officer approaches a person but does not have 'probable cause' to believe he has committed a crime, he 'cannot be punished for failing to identify himself.'
He argued the law caused a loss of privacy and mobility and placed an 'internal passport requirement' on California residents. It also compels self-incrimination by forcing a person suspected of wrongdoing to incriminate himself by answering or commit a crime by remaining silent.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed the vagrancy law is unconstitutional, and ruled police might use the law to 'harass citizens.'
Eight other states have similar laws -- Utah, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Delaware.
San Diego police and the California Highway Patrol brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing they should be allowed to demand identification when they have an independent and articulable suspicion of wrongdoing.
In other actions, the justices:
-Ruled 8-1 against North Dakota in a dispute over ownership of certain riverbeds of the Little Missouri River.
-Dismissed Mississippi's appeal of a court-ordered interim redistricting plan for five congressional disctricts.
-Agreed to hear arguments on whether heads of one-person businesses can refuse government orders to turn over business records by invoking their right against self-incrimination.