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When you have been pulled-over when operating a vehicle on public property (i.e. a highway), do you have to communicate with the officer in English in (Arizona) United States of America?

I understand that you must give them driver's license, proof of insurance, and registration, and I vaguely remember reading in the Arizona's driver's handbook that there are a set of questions you must be prepared to answer in English. However, I am not sure if this is correct.

There are generally two theories on being the best way to deal with traffic stops: 1. is to be nice and comply with the officer, nicely answering any questions; 2. is to be nice and comply only to orders they are legally obligated to follow, answering only questions they are legally obligated to answer, and speaking to the officer as minimal as possible.

But I would like to test a third theory: speaking a language the officer does not understand, and making it appear that I either barely understand the officer, or barely can speak to the officer in their language (presumably English or Spanish, most likely, in the United States).

I am thinking I will start speaking in German to the officer, and hope the officer doesn't speak German. This will frustrate the officer (and make them feel sorry for me), and make the officer want to ask as few questions as possible, without getting frustrated that I refuse to answer them. Thus, reducing the self-incriminating evidence, while reaping the benefits of not being the "I won't speak to you" jerk.

So if I spoke and listened perfectly in English, would it be obstruction of justice (or otherwise legally a lie) to intentionally construe myself as (or pretend to be) a German speaker, and not an English speaker, to the officer?

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  • You cannot refuse to follow lawful orders given in English. You'd have to make your resistance compatible with theory 2. Being in possession of an AZ driver's license but not speaking English or Spanish is uncommon, so I doubt that you trick an officer into a sympathy wave-off, especially since police translators are just a phone call away.
    – user6726
    Jun 2 '20 at 19:08
  • What was the downvote for? That Doesn't make sense!
    – Eliter
    Jun 2 '20 at 19:16
  • If the officer asks "Do you speak English?", which would be a natural question to ask, how would you respond? Jun 2 '20 at 20:40
  • Nate Eldredge, I honestly did not think of that. But I would continue responding in a foreign language, and not lie about being able to speak English.
    – Eliter
    Jun 2 '20 at 20:56
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You are not obliged to say anything to a police officer during a traffic stop, in fact you are generally better off staying silent. This is your Fifth Amendment right to silence. The only exception to this is that the officer could ask for your name and you are obliged to give it under Arizona Laws 13-2412, but the answer to that is language-independent and is usually already answered with your driver's license in a traffic stop.

If you did choose to communicate only in German, this may have the effect of frustrating the officer's investigation but if you only make truthful statements in German it is unlikely to be obstruction of their investigation. Arizona Laws 13-2409 is I believe the relevant section (emphasis mine):

A person who knowingly attempts by means of bribery, misrepresentation, intimidation or force or threats of force to obstruct, delay or prevent the communication of information or testimony relating to a violation of any criminal statute to a peace officer, magistrate, prosecutor or grand jury or who knowingly injures another in his person or property on account of the giving by the latter or by any other person of any such information or testimony to a peace officer, magistrate, prosecutor or grand jury is guilty of a class 5 felony, except that it is a class 3 felony if the person commits the offense with the intent to promote, further or assist a criminal street gang.

In general, a law that required you to give answers to a police officer during an investigation in English if you understand English and have waived your right to silence would violate your First Amendment right to free speech (as it is in effect "forced speech"). However, you would need to be careful not to tell the police officer that you do not understand English if that is not true, as it could be misrepresentation.

Police officer training likely includes instructions for detaining someone that cannot understand them and the police can detain you and wait for an interpreter to continue their investigation if they determine that is necessary. You may actually be shooting yourself in the foot by doing this, because the time it takes for them to get an interpreter likely extends the amount of time the detainment can last while remaining "reasonable," so you may be waiting by the side of the road longer than you would have if you had simply told the officer that you were invoking your right to silence and followed the officer's instructions without speaking.

As an aside, as more people are educated on their rights via the Internet and understand why they should always invoke their right to silence when detained, police officers will get more used to people they pull over immediately and politely telling them that they are going to invoke their right to silence. I doubt most police officers will hold it against you as long as you are otherwise cooperative and don't yell at them or berate them.

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No, you don't have to communicate in English. A large number of tourists and even American residents don't have the ability to do so, so requiring them to do what they cannot do would be silly.

That being said, it's probably the wiser move to be cooperative. An officer is doing his/her job and often has some personal discretion. If they sense that you are purposely being uncooperative and trying to make their job harder, any tendency for the officer to cut you a break [reduce the speeding infraction or write a warning instead of a ticket] becomes far less likely.

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