I've seen many youtube videos where a citizen refuses to answer a cops questions. This one particularly stood out as it seems the person is intentionally trying to get the cops attention then refuse to answer there questions.

In the US (and in Canada) can a cop do anything if the citizen refuses to answer questions and they weren't certain he was doing something illegal? Also, must a cop answer "yes" or "no" when asked if they are detaining you? For example when the cop asked "have you been drinking?" and the guy says "am I being detained?" could the cop just not say yes or no (for example reply with the question "were you at a bar")?

Are technically cops powerless unless they catch you in the act of a violent crime?

I'm wondering, people like this are wasting a valuable resource, what laws could be passed so cops could charge him? Do these things not count as obstruction of justice?

  • It will depend on the circumstances. In the UK you don't always have to disclose your name, even if you are being searched. In the UK you will be told if you are being detained or arrested.
    – Terry
    Dec 10, 2015 at 11:10
  • @Terry in the US, you are also told when placed under arrest, but detention is slightly more subtle. If a cop stops you on the street in the UK because you match the description of, say, a robbery suspect, what will they tell you to inform you that you are being detained?
    – phoog
    Dec 10, 2015 at 16:58
  • @phoog I may be wrong because I'm new to this, but we would just tell you that you are being detained. If it was for something serious there would be an arrest to allow prompt investigation.
    – Terry
    Dec 10, 2015 at 17:19
  • In the UK as far as I'm aware you don't have to disclose your name even if you are arrested or charged with a crime. I think your chance of being released on bail is pretty much zero if you don't give your name. Some arrestees have used this tactic deliberately to force the police into a deciding on the same day whether to charge them with a crime or not.
    – bdsl
    Mar 21, 2016 at 22:32
  • @bdsl Although if you're being reported for a named offence (usually being stopped for driving offenses) failing to provide your name is an offence in itself (failing to furnish information) and you'll get an escort to the local police station (same as failing to provide a breath test specimen)
    – Smock
    Feb 13, 2020 at 11:07

2 Answers 2


Cops in the US aren't powerless if they didn't catch you in the act of a violent crime. They may detain you on reasonable suspicion that you committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime; powers of arrest vary a bit by state, but in general they may arrest pursuant to an arrest warrant, or for any offense committed in their presence, or when they have probable cause to believe that a felony was committed and the person they're arresting committed it.

If a cop doesn't have reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts (not a hunch, not "he's in this neighborhood while black," but actual facts that give rise to the reasonable suspicion), he cannot legally seize you and prevent you from leaving. However, the question of reasonable suspicion is not one he needs to justify to the person he's detaining; it's something which is meant to be challenged in the courts, and attempting to judge it for yourself on the street will result in you becoming familiar with some of the tools cops have on their belts. A cop doesn't strictly need to answer "am I being detained," but if they say "yes" then there's really nothing you can do about it.

Because cops can't stop you without reasonable suspicion, they can't force you to identify yourself without it. With it, some states let them force you to identify yourself (and all allow them to do so while you're driving). Cops can never force you to answer questions that might incriminate you; if a cop asks you if you've been drinking, you have the right to refuse to say "yes" or "no." You can't legally be punished for exercising your rights; that's not to say you won't be (if a cop gets angry at you and tases you, that's not legal, but you still got tased), but it's not legal to be.

If the person refuses to answer questions, and the cop doesn't have grounds to do anything more, the cop has two excellent legal options: first, the cop can continue to ask questions for a bit (although detentions on reasonable suspicion can't go on too long), and second the cop can let you go.


Police must find reasonable suspicion to detain you. And they must find probable cause to obtain a search warrant or arrest you.

That said, all police encounters can potentially be problematic. See the two following questions and answers.

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