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.

  • 3
    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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    "Lie" implies knowing and deceptive falsehood. I don't know if it is in fact true, and I even less know that they are lying as opposed to just making stuff up as people do. If you are actually guilty, you really should lawyer up and let your suit negotiate a deal. Police don't count, it's prosecutors who count. – user6726 Nov 12 '16 at 16:59
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    I'd suggest "Please tell me" instead of "I don't know" – gnasher729 Nov 13 '16 at 7:21

"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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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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