Utah cops stopping homeless to see their ID, but are they breaking the law in doing so?

ACLU, others wonder how Operation Rio Grande is being conducted, but state police defend their actions.<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UHP Troopers make an arrest on 400 west as law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

Scruffy-looking pedestrians along North Temple and elsewhere in Salt Lake City should be prepared to show identification — despite their legal right not to carry ID.

Since the onset of Operation Rio Grande, law enforcement officers are asking pedestrians for ID despite settled law that people in the United States are free from such demands unless suspected of a crime.

The Rio Grande law-enforcement initiative began Aug. 14 in an effort to reduce criminal activity around The Road Home shelter downtown. Many who frequented the area along 500 West between 200 South and 400 South scattered throughout the city and county. Some moved to North Temple.

Numerous interviews by The Salt Lake Tribune of pedestrians near 800 West and North Temple share commonalities. The most prominent is the allegation that officers ask people for ID as they walk down the sidewalk. They then call in to check for outstanding criminal warrants that can lead to arrest.

A significant number of those interviewed said they were not aware of their right to decline requests for ID.

A 42-year-old woman, who identified herself as Amanda, said she has been homeless off and on for the past several years.

Recently, an officer approached and asked for ID. When she declined, Amanda said the officer told her she was a suspect in a trespassing complaint and must show her identification.

He said, ‘I will take you to jail right now,’” Amanda recalled.

Since mid-August, police have made 1,600 bookings at the Salt Lake County jail. Most are released within several days.

Another pedestrian, a 46-year-old woman called Vera, said she had been stopped as many as three times in a day. On one occasion, when she told the officer she didn’t have ID, he threatened to arrest her for not carrying it, she said.

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Council member who now is affiliated with the Community Activist Group (CAG), which meets with police regularly, said she is troubled after talking to pedestrians along North Temple.

People are afraid of the police and are forced to walk all day from place to place,” she said. “They are asked for ID and threatened if they don’t have ID.”

A spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety, which is in charge of the law enforcement aspects of Operation Rio Grande, said officers can legally engage in conversation with passers-by and ask for identification.

They do not have to give ID if they don’t want to,” said Maj. Jess Anderson. “They are free to walk away.”

However, officers can enforce laws on trespassing, jaywalking and littering, he said. In those instances, they can demand ID.

Anderson added that there is no Operation Rio Grande directive to “run everybody on warrants.”

But a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said she is concerned that police are targeting people who appear homeless.

If officers are stopping people because they look homeless or poor, on the assumption that they have probably been engaged in some generalized neighborhood nuisance, that would be profiling,” Anna Brower Thomas said in a statement. “The public safety return on this approach to policing is very low, while the risk to due process and the cost to taxpayers are both very high.”

Although the law enforcement initiative pushed homeless people out of the Rio Grande District, it did not provide alternatives to living outside, Thomas noted. That also should be of concern, especially with winter approaching.

“Now people have left that area to transition to other areas of the city, but they appear to be followed by Operation Rio Grande wherever they go,” she said. “Where are the areas that homeless people are allowed to be in Salt Lake City? At what point have we pushed them far enough away?”

Whenever law enforcement targets a specific group, it is troubling, said University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora.

I do believe that there is clearly a need for vigilance of individual rights in this moment of American history,” he said.

When poor or homeless people are arrested for minor offenses, jailed and then released, Guiora said, they are caught in an unending loop.

It strikes me that there is a cycle, like a hamster wheel. Once you are on it, you can’t get off,” he said. “The question is, to what end are we asking them for their ID?”