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Many police encounters in the United States start with the police officer asking "Why do you think I stopped you?"

Is there any legal downside in answering "I don't know"?

If state-specific, I am mostly interested in the case where I am located in California, New York or Massachusetts.

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  • 5
    On the contrary, anything but "I don't know" is tantamount to self-incrimination.
    – user6726
    Nov 12 '16 at 0:20
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    @user6726 the fifth amendment to the US constitution protects one's right not to answer the question. If I know I've been stopped for speeding, does it give me a right to lie about that?
    – phoog
    Nov 12 '16 at 14:39
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    No, it gives you the right to refuse to answer an incriminating question. If you don't have your lawyer with you, you should be extremely covetous of that right, since you lack the expertise to judge what would actually incriminate you.
    – user6726
    Nov 12 '16 at 16:54
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    I'd suggest "Please tell me" instead of "I don't know"
    – gnasher729
    Nov 13 '16 at 7:21
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    It may absolutely be the case that you didn't know, as you can't know the machinations of the police officers mind. Perhaps you were speeding, but the reason he pulled you over was because he got a BOLO for cars matching your car's description. 'I don't know' will always be factually accurate if the question is 'Why did I pull you over'.
    – SGR
    Nov 16 '16 at 10:29
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"I don't know" is a better answer than most, but you should only say that if it's the truth.

The three most important rules to follow when being questioned by a police officer are as follows:

  • Do not lie.
  • Do not incriminate yourself.
  • Be cooperative (to the extent that you're not lying or incriminating yourself).

"Do you know why I pulled you over?" or "Why do you think I stopped you?" are perfect opening questions for law enforcement to ask because there is no good answer. Any answer you give puts you at a disadvantage for the rest of the stop because you've tacitly accepted the officer's assumption that you did something wrong.

The best response would be to simply reply back with their own question. "Why did you pull me over, officer?" If you say it right, it's rational, polite, and cooperative without actually answering anything.

Your position from the very beginning should be that you did nothing wrong (even if you know that you did). It's the officer's job to make the case. It's not your job to help them.

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    I think it's always the truth. There's no way I can eliminate the possibility somebody transposed a digit when issuing an arrest warrant and got my license plate instead in advance.
    – Joshua
    Jun 25 '20 at 3:50
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    Right? You can know something you did wrong, but you still don't know if that is the reason the officer stopped you.
    – user253751
    Jun 25 '20 at 9:23
  • Since as you say "it's the officers' job to make the case", you can still say "I don't know" regardless. It doesn't place you at a disadvantage, because you haven't admitted anything. And you're not being uncooperative - you're simply waiting for them to tell you.
    – Graham
    Feb 22 at 10:47
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Generally speaking, "I don't know", is a good answer, indeed, often the best one.

Another commentator suggested, "Please tell me", which can be even less responsive and hence less prone to incriminate you, but "Please tell me" can come across as snarky or sarcastic, so I'd be careful how that was expressed if you did say that, as aggravating the officer is usually not a good way to have him exercise his discretion in your favor, for example, by letting you get away with a warning.

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