Theoretically, people have the right not to talk to police. I say “theoretically” because there are many situations where that is neither possible nor practical, but for this post, I’ll focus on the times where you might not want to talk to the police and you have the realistic choice not to do so.
The most frequent scenario where you will encounter a police officer is during a traffic stop. If you think there’s a chance that the officer will let you off with a warning, you’re best off just politely cooperating with him. But assuming you want to fight the ticket or if there’s a chance he will find evidence of other crimes in your car, you don’t have to answer his questions. The first question an officer asks you, usually, is, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” An officer who asks this wants you to admit to a traffic violation, and also he wants you to start a “voluntary” conversation with him. Hand the officer your license and registration and politely tell him that you are not going to answer any questions. After he has taken your license and registration, ask if you are free to go. This makes it clear that you are not consenting to stay.
Also, he is likely to ask you if you mind if he looks around in your car. You can say, “no.” Police officers are not being polite when they ask you for permission to do something; they need your consent.
If you live in a urban or suburban area, police may come to your home to investigate a noise complaint. That can be anything from domestic violence to a raucous party. Officers commonly ask if it’s “okay” if they look around your home. You have the right to say, “no.” Even if you have nothing illegal to hide, I wouldn’t let officers look around my house for the same reason I lock my doors: I don’t want strangers going through my home.
Another common situation where you are likely to encounter the police is if you happen to be nearby when a crime has been reported in a public place, such as a fight in a bar. It’s entirely likely that you’ll want to cooperate with the police, but you may have legitimate reasons not to. Obviously, if you are at all connected to the crime, don’t answer any questions. You shouldn’t run away, but calmly ask the officer if you are free to leave. If you aren’t under arrest, she has to let you go. Always ask if you are free to go if you don’t want to answer questions.