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What Is the Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause sound to most people like similar terms, but they have important differences. Each gives police different levels of authority over individuals they suspect of crimes. Probable cause requires hard evidence, while the threshold for reasonable suspicion is lower. Here, we’ll examine the two terms more closely, and will discuss how an experienced criminal defense attorney could assist you if you’ve been arrested.

What Is Reasonable Suspicion?

The United States Supreme Court established reasonable suspicion as “the sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people… are entitled to rely.” That’s not very clear. Lawyers and law enforcement understand reasonable suspicion as an articulable and factual assumption that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed. It must be more than just a “hunch” or a “gut feeling.”

Reasonable suspicion must be accompanied by facts or circumstances that give rise to an officer’s suspicion. If an officer has reason to suspect that a crime has, is, or is about to occur, they may briefly detain and question the person or persons implicated. Reasonable suspicion is not sufficient for a search warrant or make an arrest. That means the officer won’t have permission to search a vehicle unless that vehicle is on school grounds.

Take this scenario: an officer notices someone stumble blearily out of a bar, get into a car, and speed off, swerving recklessly. That officer has reason to suspect that the individual is driving while intoxicated. They may pull the driver over and briefly detain them to determine if an offense such as driving under the influence has been committed.

Stop and Frisk

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers do not need probable cause to “stop and frisk” individuals. Under this ruling, it is legal for officers to briefly detain and pat suspects down for weapons without a warrant, if there is an articulable reasonable suspicion that a crime has, is, or may be about to occur. That said, officers are only allowed to “frisk” for weapons. This practice is controversial because of its use as a racial profiling tool.

What Is Probable Cause?

Probable cause goes beyond reasonable suspicion and gives officers grounds for obtaining and carrying out search warrants and making arrests. To reach the threshold of probable cause, officers must show hard evidence that a crime has been, is being, or is about to take place. For probable cause to be legal, an officer must articulate the facts and evidence that led to their conclusion that a crime was committed.

If a police officer fails to establish either reasonable suspicion or probable cause before making an arrest or searching a person and their property, then the arrest and the search are considered unlawful. Any evidence collected prior to the arrest may not be admissible in court in the event of a trial, which can dramatically reduce the odds that a crime will be prosecuted.

Let’s return to the buzzed driver scenario. If an officer pulls someone over because they suspect that the driver is driving under the influence of alcohol, the officer needs to establish that the driver’s blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit to have probable cause to make an arrest. They may conduct a breathalyzer test, and if the test reveals that the driver is legally intoxicated, then the officer has probable cause to arrest the person.

How A Lawyer Could Help You If You’ve Been Arrested

If the police did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to arrest or search you, then certain evidence cannot be used against you in court, no matter what that evidence shows. You need an experienced Virginia lawyer to identify if this applies to you. If you’ve been arrested for a crime, we can help. The trusted Chesapeake criminal defense lawyers at Shannon & Associates fight for those who’ve been charged with crimes in our community, and we’ll be ready to put our skills and experience to work for you. Call us at (757) 228-5529 today to schedule a confidential consultation.

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