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Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

What is the Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion & Probable Cause?

Before police officers can detain, search, or arrest someone for an alleged crime, they must first obtain reasonable suspicion and then probable cause. While reasonable suspicion and probable cause are often used interchangeably, they are applied in different ways.

Reasonable Suspicion Definition

So, what is reasonable suspicion? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that law enforcement officials can briefly detain someone if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. While this standard relies heavily on the officers’ judgment and much broader than probable cause, it must still be based on existing facts and circumstances – rather than just a hunch or a gut feeling. 

For example, if an officer in a patrol car notices a driver swerving recklessly in the road with his/her headlights turned off while driving at night, then the officer has reasonable suspicion to pull that person over for a suspected DUI based on direct observations, training, and experience. 

Probable Cause 

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American citizen has a right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and that probable cause must first be established before obtaining a search warrant. Probable cause gives law enforcement officials the right to obtain a warrant, make an arrest, or search a person or property. 

The main difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion is that probable cause means there is concrete evidence of a crime and that any reasonable person might suspect criminal activity. In contrast, reasonable suspicion occurs when any reasonable officer might suspect a crime. 

To continue the example above, let’s say after the driver is pulled over, the officer notices the smell of alcohol on the driver’s breath, the driver’s eyes are red, the driver’s speech is slurred, and the driver’s responses to the officer’s questions are delayed. With all this evidence, the officer has probable cause to make a DUI arrest. 

What are examples of reasonable suspicion?

It's important to note that there is no one factor that is determinative for purposes of reasonable suspicion, but here are some usual examples of what may amount to reasonable suspicion:

  • An officer may have reasonable suspicion to arrest someone who matches the description of a criminal suspect, and who happens to be in the vicinity not long after the crime allegedly occurred.
  • A police officer may have reasonable suspicion that a driver is under the influence if they observe him drifting from one lane to another late at night.
  • In a high crime area, police may be justified in detaining someone who runs when they approach.
  • It is reasonable for the police to detain someone who drops a suspicious object (such as a plastic baggie containing a white, powdery substance) after seeing police.

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a DUI in Lexington, contact the Law Office of James R. Snell, Jr., LLC today at (803) 359-3301">(803) 359-3301 for a free initial consultation. Helping clients facing a wide range of criminal matters since 2004. 


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