Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion: What Are the Differences?

Man Being Handcuffed Because of Reasonable DoubtReasonable suspicion and probable cause are two very important legal concepts in a criminal case. They could have a direct impact on whether the police have the authority to detain you, arrest you, and take other actions in your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to prove that law enforcement officials lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause as a way to get the charges against you dismissed or reduced to a less serious offense.

What Is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is the legal standard that the police must meet in order to briefly detain a person and search him for a weapon. This standard is not as high as for probable cause. The police must have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime, is currently in the process of committing a crime, or plans to commit a crime.

Reasonable suspicion must be based on more than a hunch. It must be established by the circumstances or facts at the time a person is detained and the officer’s training and experience. Reasonable suspicion exists when an objectively reasonable police officer would suspect that a crime has been, is, or will be committed.

There must be reasonable suspicion in any type of criminal case, including traffic offenses and DWI. Examples of actions that may establish reasonable suspicion to stop someone for DWI who is driving include:

  • Weaving
  • Making an illegal turn or doing so without using a turn signal
  • Frequent braking
  • Drifting between lanes
  • Having a tailgate out
  • Driving when a vehicle’s registration has expired

What Is Probable Cause to Arrest a Person?

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, people are protected from unreasonable searches or seizures or the issuance of a search warrant without probable cause. In order to establish probable cause to arrest someone, the police must have sufficient knowledge of facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been, is, or will be committed and that the person being investigated committed the offense. Arrests made with or without a warrant must be based on probable cause.

A higher standard is required to establish probable cause than reasonable suspicion. It cannot be shown based on an officer’s suspicions or guesses. It must be based on facts and hard evidence. In some cases, sufficient probable cause can develop after the police detain someone based on reasonable suspicion.

There are many ways that the police can establish probable cause to arrest an individual. Examples include smelling alcohol or drugs on them, seeing evidence, such as a gun, drugs, or stolen property, in plain view, or an admission of guilt.

When Is Probable Cause to Search and to Obtain a Search Warrant Established?

To have probable cause to conduct a search, it must be shown that the facts and circumstances established by the police would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed at the location to be searched or that evidence of a crime exists there. When applying for a search warrant, a police officer must state facts in an affidavit as to why there is sufficient evidence to conduct a search, must specify the place to be searched, and describe the property that will be seized. The judge will make his decision on whether there is sufficient probable cause to issue a search warrant based on the totality of the circumstances.

In some cases, law enforcement is permitted to conduct a search without a warrant if they can establish probable cause. Situations when this may be allowed include:

  • When the consent of the person in charge of the property to be searched was obtained
  • When the search was conducted in connection with a lawful arrest
  • When there was an emergency situation where the public needed protection or evidence would be lost
  • When evidence or contraband was in plain view of the police officer

Let Us Help You Establish the Lack of Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause in Your Criminal Case

If the police did not have reasonable suspicion to detain you or probable cause to arrest or search you, crucial evidence may not be used against you. This can be true even if you are guilty of the crime you are charged with committing. Our experienced criminal defense lawyers can raise these and other defenses to the charges you face so that you achieve the best possible outcome. To learn more about how we can help, start an online chat to schedule your free consultation.