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Attorney Van O'Steen

Refusal to Answer Accident Queries is Within Legal Rights

Van O'Steen

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Recently, I learned of a police officer who exceeded his authority.

He threatened to arrest a young woman for not answering his questions about an automobile accident he was investigating.

The woman had been driving one of the cars involved in the accident.  She did not want to answer any questions then.  After the officer was told that she did not want to answer any questions, he isolated her and continued to question her about the accident.

Regardless of the reason for the investigation, police officer interrogations are intimidating to most people. 

This young woman legally was entitled to decline to answer most of the officer’s questions.  When she attempted to exercise her rights, however, she was threatened with arrest. Then, the questioning continued.

Arizona law limits the information you must provide regarding an automobile accident.

You are required to give your name, address and the registration number of the vehicle you are driving.  You must also show your driver’s license.

If an investigating officer asks to see proof of your automobile liability insurance, you must show proper evidence of it.  Failure to do so may subject you to a fine and suspension of your driver’s license, auto registration and plates.

If you are arrested for a traffic violation, and you are asked to take a blood, breath or urine test to determine whether you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you must generally do so, or your driver’s license will be suspended.

Even in these situations, however, you are required only to take the test.  You need not answer any questions.

The point of this column is not to encourage a lack of cooperation with the police.  Rather, it is to explain basic legal rights that were established for good reasons.

In our legal system, people are not required to serve as witnesses against themselves.  And, the law recognizes that perceptions may be distorted after an accident, especially if a personal injury results from it.

Because your statements to police officers generally can be used against you in later criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits, our law provides a measure of protection against statements made by you, especially at a time when you may not be thinking clearly.

The police have many tools available to them for accident investigation, most of which are compatible with the exercise of your legal rights.