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Is It Illegal to Give Police a Fake Name?

We've all thought it at one point -- if I get in trouble, I'll blame it on someone else. As children, we were pointing our fingers at siblings. A little older and everything was that one friend's idea. And plenty of people have thought that giving the police a fake name could throw them off you trail and keep you out of trouble. (Even cops think about trying to cover their tracks with a fake name.)

It rarely works. Most officers are smart enough to spot the lie, and they also have databases to verify identification. And giving false identifying information to police can get you into even more trouble. Here's how:

False Name as a Crime

Most states prohibit giving a fake name to police. Here's a look at three state statutes as an example:

California -- "Any person who falsely represents or identifies himself or herself as another person or as a fictitious person to any peace officer ... upon a lawful detention or arrest of the person, either to evade the process of the court, or to evade the proper identification of the person by the investigating officer is guilty of a misdemeanor."

Florida -- "It is unlawful for a person who has been arrested or lawfully detained by a law enforcement officer to give a false name, or otherwise falsely identify himself or herself in any way, to the law enforcement officer or any county jail personnel ... [A]ny person who violates this subsection commits a misdemeanor of the first degree."

Massachusetts -- "Whoever knowingly and willfully furnishes a false name or Social Security number to a law enforcement officer or law enforcement official following an arrest shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than one year or by both such fine and imprisonment."

It's important to note that the responsibility to provide accurate identifying information to police begins at lawful detention or arrest. Therefore, you may avoid getting in trouble for giving a false name if you haven't been detained or arrested yet, or if that detention or arrest is illegal.

Additionally, while giving a false name may be a misdemeanor in most states, remember that will probably be an additional charge to whatever police might be detaining or arresting you for to begin with, or a charge than can be avoided entirely by telling the truth.

False Name as a Forfeiture

Giving a false name could also have some unintended consequences during a criminal trial or appeal. In a recent California case, a court decided that giving a false name could forfeit your Fourth Amendment rights:

We hold that when a defendant gives a false name to a police officer, and a record check of that name fails to reveal that the defendant is in fact subject to a probation search condition, the defendant is estopped from challenging the legality of an ensuing search or seizure that would have been authorized had the officer been aware of the condition.

Essentially, since the search would've been legal if the defendant gave his real name, he can't challenge an illegal search after giving a false one.

You're not always required to speak to police, but as a general rule, if you do you need to tell the truth. You're probably better off not saying anything at all, at least not without an attorney present.

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