Do You Have to Answer Police Questions?

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As a U.S. citizen, you have the right to remain silent, but nobody guarantees that nice things will happen to you when you do. If you are strolling around, minding your own business, and a police officer stops you and begins to ask questions, you can invoke your Fifth Amendment right to silence. But if the police officers suspect that you were involved in a crime, they may take you to the police station until the matter is resolved.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

If police question you, you have the right to remain silent whether or not you have been arrested. You invoke the right by simply saying "I wish to remain silent."

Police Rights/Your Rights

The job of the police is to keep the community safe, and the law gives them certain powers to help them perform that duty. One of the things police officers have the right to do is to approach persons and ask them questions.

Don't think that, because police ask you questions, they suspect you to be a criminal. The police need the help of anyone who has information to bring criminals to justice. But you have rights too, including the right to remain silent. The police have the right to ask you questions, but you have no legal duty to answer any questions whether or not you are arrested.

If you are arrested, the police must inform you that you have the right to remain silent and that anything you say can be used against you. But this is true even before you are arrested. Let's say the officer stops you while you are walking down the street and starts asking where you were earlier in the evening. You are stopped, at this point, but not arrested. (The police do not have to tell you if they consider you a suspect or intend to arrest you.) Still, that officer will use anything you say against you. And you have the right to remain silent.

Traffic Stops

During a traffic stop, you must produce your license, registration and proof of insurance. Some states have laws known as "stop and identify" laws. When police officers ask you to identify yourself, and have reason to believe that criminal activity took place, you must reveal your identity. Stop-and-identify laws allow police to arrest suspects who refuse to identify themselves.

However, aside from identifying yourself, you have no duty to answer any police questions during a traffic stop. For example, if you are stopped for a DUI, the officer may want to chat with you about how many drinks you had that night. But you can remain silent if you wish to.

References

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.