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Should I answer a law enforcement officer's questions?

A law enforcement officer comes to your home and knocks on the front door. You know that you don't have to let them into your house without a warrant, but you step outside to talk to them. You can tell they are suspicious -- there is another officer standing back by the squad car, watching you -- and they start asking you some potentially serious questions.

What now? Do you have to answer? Should you? What is your best course of action?

You're not legally obligated to answer

It feels like law enforcement officers are in charge and you must do whatever they tell you. Society conditioned us to feel this way. It's how you felt around teachers in grade school, it's how you felt around professors at college and it's how you feel now around your boss at work. Police officers tap into these same instincts, making it appear they have the authority to do whatever they want.

The reality, though, is that you do not have to answer if you don't want to. You have a fundamental right to remain silent. This is true even if they arrest you.

Remember, those officers at your door may not have a warrant: Ask to see it if you're not sure. If they do not have one, they may be digging for information that will get them one or that will give them a reason to conduct a search on the spot. You don't have to talk to them if you don't want to.

This applies to other situations, as well, such as if they stop you on the street or if you get pulled over in your car. You always have this right.

Turn the questions around

In fact, in some situations, you can turn things around. If the police officer keeps questioning you on the street or when you need to leave, for example, simply ask if the officer is arresting or detaining you. They cannot do this without a valid reason.

If the officer says that you are not being detained or arrested at this time, not only do you not have to answer questions, but you can calmly explain that you need to go, and then you can walk away from the officers.

Your right to a lawyer

Above all else, you have the right to a lawyer. If the police interrogate you, say that you would prefer not to answer questions until you have a lawyer in the room with you. You do not have to be combative or confrontational about it, but you need to understand your legal rights in a situation like this, and police officers must respect that.

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