What is the Difference Between Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion?

At first glance, probable cause and reasonable suspicion may seem very similar. The terms are sometimes even used interchangeably by those unfamiliar with legal terminology. However, while these ideas are related, they are two separate legal concepts. Whether they have been appropriately applied to your case can make the difference between a conviction and having your charges reduced or dismissed. If you have been accused of a crime or arrested for any reason, it is imperative that you understand your rights regarding law enforcement’s use of probable cause and reasonable suspicion.

Contact a trusted legal representative immediately if you have been detained or charged with a crime. Many aspects of a criminal case are time-sensitive, and having a strong law firm on your side from the beginning can significantly impact the outcome. Retaining an experienced legal advocate who will fight for your rights throughout the process can give you the best possible chance of reaching a positive result in your case. A knowledgeable Texas defense attorney can explain the vital differences between probable cause and reasonable suspicion that you should be aware of and the effect they can have on your case.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion refers to law enforcement’s rights to detain or investigate a person when they believe a crime has been or is about to be committed. The term is rather broad and difficult to define, but it typically references the officer’s knowledge that is grounded in their experience and training. It represents something more than a hunch or “gut feeling” that an officer has regarding a suspect. Under the law, reasonable suspicion must be based on specific facts and observances rather than mere conjecture. A police officer cannot legally investigate someone just because they “look suspicious” or are a member of a certain race or ethnicity.

However, if a law enforcement officer has good reason to think a person has violated the law or is about to commit a crime, they may investigate the person based on their reasonable suspicion. If the officer believes that an illegal act is occurring or will occur, they must then ask questions and collect evidence that supports or refutes their accusation. Although the suspect may be briefly detained, they cannot be arrested on reasonable suspicion alone.

What is Probable Cause?

While each American citizen has the right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can make an arrest or search a person or their property if they have probable cause to do so. But what is probable cause? The answer to this question is more complex than you might think. The Supreme Court has been asked many times to clarify the definition, but the term’s meaning still remains very fluid and dependent on the situation at hand.

In general, the standards for probable cause are higher than for reasonable suspicion. The quantity and quality of the evidence must present a fair probability that there has been the commission of a crime by the suspect. Because the standard is higher, officers are allowed to use more intrusive search methods. For example, while

But how does the court determine whether probable cause exists? Unfortunately, there is much room for interpretation of the law. The courts decide whether a search warrant or arrest is justified by considering the totality of what law enforcement knows about the situation at that point. The court then rules whether there is sufficient evidence that supports law enforcement’s suspicions. However, even if law enforcement or the court has ruled that there was probable cause for an action, a skilled lawyer may be able to prove that the officers only had reasonable suspicion due to a lack of concrete evidence.

How Can Reasonable Suspicion Turn Into Probable Cause?

One example of the use of reasonable suspicion is when an officer notices a driver swerving into other lanes and driving slowly. Based on their observance of the driver’s behavior, the officer may pull the individual over due to a reasonable suspicion that they are driving under the influence. Following this, the officer will investigate the situation by speaking to the driver, asking them to take a sobriety test or Breathalyzer test, and looking for evidence of drinking, such as open bottles. If the investigation provides further proof that the individual was more than likely engaging in criminal activity, then the situation may rise to the level of probable cause, and an arrest for a DUI could be made.

Although this instance may seem pretty clear-cut, real-life cases are rarely this simple. There are many times officers overstep their bounds or are unable to justify their detention or arrest of a suspect based on the evidence that was available to them. Your defense attorney can look at your case and determine whether the officer’s actions were based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause, which can inform your defense strategies.

Why Hire Our Attorneys?

Many of our clients have had their rights violated because officers do not understand or do not adequately fulfill the requirements of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. When this is the case, we can often get their charges reduced or even dismissed. However, this takes a great deal of legal skill and confidence. Don’t go with inexperienced lawyers who will not be able to defend your rights. Contact our law firm for honest, aggressive legal representation.

Our criminal defense attorneys have an excellent track record and have received numerous awards for our high level of service. Facing criminal charges can be a scary experience, but you don’t need to go through this alone. Call Morgan Bourque, Attorney at Law, book a consultation at 713-766-3733.