Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion

During criminal cases, two legal principles can make all the difference: probable cause and reasonable suspicion. Let's take a closer look.

What is Probable Cause?

Before law enforcement can make an arrest, they must have probable cause. This means that officers have clear and objective circumstances that suggest criminal activity. Additionally, if an officer finds hard evidence for a crime, they may have probable cause as well.

Probable cause is so important because it ensures that officers cannot make arrests based on a hunch or a feeling. Instead, they must find substantial proof of a crime to get a warrant and proceed with an investigation.

An Example of Probable Cause

An officer is patrolling on Main Street why they notice an individual running down the street carrying a large duffle bag. As the person is running, they trip and drop the bag, which splits open to reveal vast amounts of goods from watches to other old jewelry pieces. Suddenly, the officer gets a call over the radio that a local pawn shop was robbed.

At this point, the officer can sufficiently say that the individual running from the direction of the shop with a duffle bag full of stolen goods is probably the perpetrator. Because the officer has probable cause, they can proceed with the arrest.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

While probable cause relies on objective circumstances and evidence, reasonable suspicion is closer to an inclination than proof. Often, reasonable suspicion leads an officer to investigate around an area where they believe criminal activity was or is taking place.

Sometimes, during this investigation, they may discover evidence for probable cause and make an arrest. However, regardless of how reasonably suspicious an officer is, they cannot legally arrest someone based on suspicion alone.

An Example of Reasonable Suspicion

An officer is sitting at his post when he looks over at the local park. There, he notices a man looking around as if waiting for someone. Then, another man walks up to him, and they appear to talk for a moment before shaking hands. The second man walks away, leaving the first alone. Not ten minutes later, however, another person strikes up a conversation with the individual. They also shake hands, but the angle of the newcomer's body does not cover up the money he exchanges before the handshake.

At this point, the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a drug deal is taking place. While they cannot arrest the man in the park, the officer can investigate him by asking around for a name and looking at his criminal record.

When Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion Meet

In some cases, reasonable suspicion may quickly lead to probable cause. This means that in observing a situation based on reasonable suspicion, an officer finds proof of a crime that leads to probable cause and an arrest.

For example, an officer is at a traffic stop. They notice a driver behaving erratically and swerving across the lines. Not only are they driving strangely, but they are also going 20 mph above the speed limit. The officer turns on their siren and proceeds to pull the driver over. Once they ask the driver to roll down the window, however, they find the pungent stench of alcohol in addition to bottles of beer littering the passenger seat.

The officer may ask the driver to perform a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer and find that the driver has a blood alcohol content (BAC) far over the legal limit. At this point, the officer can arrest the person for drunk driving.

Initially, the officer only had a reasonable suspicion that drinking could be a reason for reckless driving. However, once they investigated things further, they found evidence of criminal activity.

Key Takeaway

Reasonable suspicion won't lead to an arrest, but probable cause will, and if an officer finds evidence against you, you could face serious penalties.

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