When Do You Need To Answer Questions Posed By The Police? Police Interaction, Part II

By Benjamin A. Tracy, Columbus Criminal Defense Lawyer and Civil Rights Attorney

This is the second part in a series of posts about what legal obligation you have when you interact with the police.  The first post dealt with the question of when the police have the right to stop and request you to identify yourself.  This second post deals with a hypothetical about when you are required to answer their questions.

Situation 2
You are standing on the sidewalk in front of a theater waiting for your date to arrive.  A police officer walks up to you and says, “Hey, I’d like to ask you some questions.”

Maybe you’d ask yourself, “Do I have to?”

The BEST answer is: No, and you should politely refuse.

The CORRECT answer is: No.

The WRONG reaction: Answer whatever questions are asked or lie to the police.

As the CORRECT answer implies.  You are allowed to simply ignore the officer.  However, as the BEST answer suggests, generally, interactions with the police will go much more smoothly if you politely explain yourself.  It is also a good idea to directly ask the officer whether you have to do what he is asking.

Thus, an appropriate thing to say here might be, “I’d prefer not to answer any questions, sir.  Am I required to?”  At that point, the officer will likely do one of two things.  First, he could move on and question someone else.  Second, he could pretend you never said anything and attempt to ask you more questions.

In this case, you should repeat your polite refusal and ask again if you have to answer his questions.  No matter what he tells you, you do not have to answer his questions and you should not.  The only questions which you should answer are your name, your address, and your date of birth.

Of course, if you just saw a purse-snatcher run by, and the officer asks you which way the thief ran, part of being a good citizen might be to tell him.  But, other than obvious examples like the “purse-snatcher” where you are clearly a potential witness, you should not speak to the police without a lawyer present.

If you do, you can do yourself a lot of harm.  Maybe you’ve heard the Miranda warnings at some time or another? “You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you do or say can be used against you in a court of law.”  These are warnings that are verbally given to you if you are arrested.  However, even before you are arrested, the part about silence is just as true.

If an officer approaches you and asks you questions about a crime he thinks you committed, and you answer them, “anything you say can be used against you.”  So the safe bet, whether or not you are under arrest, whether or not you think you are a suspect, is not to answer an officer’s questions.

This situation raises another important fact about interacting with the police.  Your rights only matter if they are exercised.  A police officer is perfectly within his rights to go up to you on the street and, without arresting you or keeping you from leaving, ask you questions about a crime he believes you have committed.

If you voluntarily answer them, game over.  You will have incriminated yourself.  Like many of your rights, your right not to incriminate yourself only has power if you do not voluntarily and consensually incriminate yourself.  So when the police ask you questions, unless you are certain that you are just a witness to a crime and not under any suspicion yourself, do not answer them.

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If you are under investigation, or have been arrested by any Columbus law enforcement agency, feel free to contact one of our experienced Columbus Criminal Defense Attorneys, for a free initial consultation about your legal rights and possible defenses.