Police Questioning Prior to Arrest

If you haven't been arrested, but a police officer wants to question you about a crime, what should you do? Here are some tips.

Refusing to answer a police officer's questions is not a crime. Of course, people often voluntarily assist the police by supplying information that might help the police make an arrest. But the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the "right of silence." A police officer generally cannot arrest a person simply for failure to respond to questions. This means that unless a police officer has "probable cause" to make an arrest or a "reasonable suspicion" to conduct a "stop and frisk," a person approached by the police officer has the legal right to walk away. But the fact that there may be a legal right to walk away doesn't mean this is a wise move. This is because there is no real way to tell what information the officer is using as a basis for his or her actions. In fact, the officer may have information that gives him or her a valid legal basis to make an arrest or to conduct a "stop and frisk," even if the individual is, in truth, innocent of any wrongdoing. If that is the case, an officer may forcibly detain an innocent individual who starts to leave the scene of an interview.

Common sense and self-protection suggest that people who intend to walk away from a police officer make sure that the officer does not intend to arrest or detain them. A good question might be, "Officer, I'm in a hurry, and I'd prefer not to talk to you right now. You won't try to stop me from leaving, right?" If the officer replies that the person is not free to leave, the person should remain at the scene and leave the question of whether the detention is correct to the courts at a later time.

Even though, as a general rule, a person doesn't have to respond to a police officer's questions, this may not hold true if the officer suspects the person of loitering. Laws in effect in many states generally define loitering as "wandering about from place to place without apparent business, such that the person poses a threat to public safety." Under these laws, if a police officer sees a person loitering, the officer can demand identification and an explanation of the person's activities. If the person fails to comply, the officer can arrest the person for loitering. Therefore, the refusal to answer questions is a problem only if the officer has also observed the person loitering.

Another situation where answers to police questions are usually required is when drivers are stopped for suspected traffic violations. Traffic offenses such as speeding and unsafe lane changes are generally classified as "infractions," for which drivers are given citations in lieu of arrest. However, an officer has the right to demand personal identification -- usually a driver's license and the vehicle registration. A driver's refusal to supply the information elevates the situation to a more serious offense, for which the driver usually can be arrested. The simple refusal to answer questions is not a crime, but the refusal to supply identification, combined with the suspected commission of a traffic offense, is.

Miranda Warnings and Pre-Arrest Questioning

People are often surprised to learn that if a person hasn't yet been arrested, the police may question the person and use the answers in court without first providing the familiar "Miranda warning" that advises people of their constitutional right to not answer questions and to have an attorney present if they do decide to talk to police officers. In fact, the Miranda warning is required only if the person being questioned is in custody.

Deciding Whether to Answer Pre-Arrest Questions

Whether or not to respond to police questioning generally depends on the person's possible relationship to criminal activity, the person's views of his or her civic responsibilities, and the person's past experiences with the police. If, however, the questioning involves events that may result in criminal charges against the person being questioned, the almost universal advice of defense attorneys is to keep the old mouth tightly shut. Suspects all too frequently unwittingly reveal information that can later be used as evidence of their guilt. The right to not incriminate oneself guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is especially powerful in this situation. A person who has reason to believe that he or she is a potential suspect should politely decline to answer questions, at least until after consulting an attorney.

The Right of the Police to Conduct A Stop and Frisk

A police officer may stop a person in order to question them if the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is engaged in criminal activity. And for self-protection, the officer can at the same time carry out a limited pat-down search for weapons (a "frisk").

In two cases decided in the 2000 term, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the "stop and frisk" rule. In one case, the Court ruled that running away from the police is enough of a reason for the police to stop and frisk the defendant. In another case the Court ruled that an anonymous tip that a suspect might be armed was insufficient justification for the police to conduct stop and frisk, absent other facts demonstrating the reliability of the tip. (Florida v. J.L, No. 98-1993 (March 28, 2000). )

How a Frisk Becomes a Legal Search -- And Possibly an Arrest

When frisking a person for weapons, the police are attuned not only to the feel of possible weapons under clothing, but also to the feel of packaged drugs. Although a frisk may not turn up a weapon, it may turn up a suspicious package that the officer knows is commonly used to carry illegal drugs or some other illegal substance. This suspicion may turn into sufficient cause for a more intensive search of the person's clothing. The lesson here is that a frisk often leads to a search. And if a search produces an illegal substance, it may result in an arrest.

Copyright 2004 Nolo