Interactions with police officers can be scary experiences, especially for those who have never dealt with law enforcement before. You may not know how you should respond to a request by officers for you to give them information, comply with a search warrant, or come into the station for an interview. You also might not be sure what you can or cannot say to officers that could get you in trouble, or the proper way to address them to show respect for their authority while also protecting your rights.
At Overson Law, PLLC, our skilled Salt Lake City criminal defense attorneys have years of experience dealing with law enforcement officers. Below, we guide you through when you should and should not answer their questions and how to speak with officers in a respectful but confident manner that will avoid causing problems for you.
The First Amendment and Speaking to the Police in Utah
The First Amendment protects your right to be rude to people, even to police officers. However, it is inadvisable to speak disrespectfully to an officer, because they may find a way to use it against you in the future. Furthermore, there is a limit to the kind of language the First Amendment protects. You are not permitted to use “fighting words,” or you could be charged with disorderly conduct, breaching the peace, or even terroristic threats, depending on how serious the words you use are.
What exactly are “fighting words?” In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court defined fighting words as “words “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” and are words that are “likely to cause an average addressee to fight.” This definition has been interpreted differently by different state and federal courts and can encompass a broad range of words.
It is unclear whether, for example, simply calling the police officer a ‘pig’ or an ‘asshole’ would be sufficient to constitute fighting words for which you could be arrested. Some courts may be more lenient with their interpretation. On the other hand, telling an officer that you are going to beat them up is almost certain to lead to criminal charges.
Police officers do not like to be treated with disrespect or have their authority questioned. They have a variety of charges that they can use if they feel the level of disrespect is criminal, including disorderly conduct, breach of the peace, and even resisting arrest. While an experienced free speech attorney like those at Overson Law, PLLC would fight to get such a charge dismissed on the grounds of a First Amendment violation, it is best to avoid this situation altogether by simply being polite to police officers, even if you feel they are not being polite to you. Take note of their actions for a future complaint or lawsuit rather than getting yourself in trouble in the heat of the moment.
When Do I Have to Answer an Officer’s Questions in Utah?
While it is a good idea to be polite and courteous with the police, this does not mean you are under any obligation to speak to them about subjects you do not wish to discuss. Many people mistakenly believe that if they refuse to answer a law enforcement officer’s questions, they can be arrested or get in some sort of trouble. Except in some very limited circumstances which we will discuss below, this is simply not true. You have a constitutional right to remain silent and it is almost always best that you exercise this right.
For example, say an officer approaches you on the street asking what you have been up to this afternoon. Since you have not committed any crime, you might be tempted to simply answer the question and say, “I was at the mall with some friends.” However, little do you know that there was an assault at the mall earlier by someone who meets your physical description. The officers will now be able to use your admission that you were also at the mall as part of a potential case against you.
Similarly, officers cannot force you to come into a station for an interview or to speak with them after you have been arrested without a lawyer present. Even with a St. George criminal defense lawyer present, you do not have to answer any of their questions. Many times, the police will lull people into a false sense of security by telling them that they are not a suspect and that the officers simply want to interview them to gather information. This does not mean that you will not become a suspect or that the words you use in the “informal” interview with officers cannot be twisted against you and used in a court of law.
In Utah, there are two situations where you must answer the officer’s questions. The first is if they ask you to provide your name. You have to identify yourself, but you are not required to give any information beyond that. The second is if you are pulled over while driving a vehicle and asked to provide your driver’s license, registration, and insurance information. You must comply with this request but are not required to answer any further questions.
Whether you have been arrested or not, the smartest thing to do when facing questions by the police is to tell them you want to exercise your right to have a lawyer present. An experienced Orem criminal defense attorney like those at Overson Law, PLLC will be able to advise you on what to say and not to say to the officers, or whether you should talk to them at all.
If You are Facing Questioning from a Police Officer, Call Us Today
Dealing with law enforcement officers can be scary and confusing. It is important to stand your ground and not to let them intimidate you into answering questions you do not have to, but also to be polite and courteous while doing so. Having a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney like those at Overson Law, PLLC by your side while dealing with police interrogations will go a long way in ensuring you do not make things worse for yourself. For a free consultation, call our office today at (801) 758-2287.