“Probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” are two of the most important concepts in criminal law. But precisely what do these phrases mean?

If you’re arrested for a crime, will probable cause or reasonable suspicion play any role in your prosecution? Can an Orange County criminal defense law firm help?

HOW ARE “REASONABLE” SUSPICION AND “PROBABLE CAUSE” DEFINED?

In the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a person can be stopped and detained briefly by the police based on a police officer’s reasonable suspicion of the person’s involvement in a crime.

Reasonable suspicion

Reasonable suspicion is defined as a police officer’s reasonable presumption that a crime was, is being, or will be committed. Reasonable suspicion must be based on circumstances or facts and is bolstered by a police officer’s training and experience.

Even a brief traffic stop by the police is legally considered a “seizure” and must be supported by either a reasonable suspicion or by probable cause.

HOW ARE PROBABLE CAUSE AND REASONABLE SUSPICION DIFFERENT?

Reasonable suspicion is stronger than a guess or a “hunch,” but it is weaker than probable cause. Probable cause is the logical belief, fully supported by the facts and the circumstances, that a crime was, is being, or will be committed.

The distinction between the two concepts is that probable cause is based on specific evidence of a crime, but reasonable suspicion is less specific and more speculative.

Reasonable suspicion means that it seems as if a crime was, is being, or will be committed; the concept is cited to justify further investigation into possible criminal activity.

HOW ARE THESE CONCEPTS APPLIED IN SPECIFIC CASES?

How do these ideas apply in actual criminal investigations? A police officer can’t stop you and detain you against your will without reasonable suspicion. But even then, the officer can’t conduct a search or arrest you without probable cause or an exception to the probable cause rule.

However, reasonable suspicion does not apply simply because an individual declines to answer questions, declines to allow a voluntary search, or is of a particular ethnicity or race.

law enforcement officers

A law enforcement officer needs only a reasonable suspicion to stop and question an individual, and the officer may search for weapons if the officer believes that the individual is armed or presents an immediate threat of bodily harm.

WHAT DO THE POLICE NEED TO MAKE AN ARREST OR CONDUCT A SEARCH?

However, probable cause must exist for a police officer to make an arrest or to acquire a search warrant.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us against unlawful searches and arrests by requiring the police to have probable cause before any arrests, searches, or seizures can be conducted – with or without a warrant.

HOW IS PROBABLE CAUSE ESTABLISHED?

Probable cause is established when police officers have reliable information indicating that:

1. a person has committed a crime
2. a particular location was a crime scene and needs to be searched
3. a particular location has evidence of a crime and needs to be searched
4. items or property at a particular location are stolen and must be seized as evidence

If a law enforcement officer cannot explain how he or she reasonably came to believe that you might be committing a crime, might have committed a crime, or might be about to commit a crime, the law forbids that officer to stop you or pull you over.

cop making an arrest

To make an arrest, the police cannot speculate. They must have facts. Those facts must be gathered from a trustworthy source. And there’s no law or formula to determine whether or not a police officer’s beliefs or actions are “reasonable.” That is determined on a case-by-case basis.

WHAT HAVE THE COURTS DETERMINED?

Federal and state courts try to balance the interest of the government to search, seize, or make an arrest against the right of an individual to be protected from unwarranted or unreasonable searches, seizures, and arrests.

Courts have also held that a state’s interest in searching students for contraband at schools is stronger than a state’s interest in searching motorists for contraband. In New Jersey, for example, probable cause isn’t needed to search a student at a school; reasonable suspicion is sufficient.

It’s important – especially for motorists – to know how probable cause and reasonable suspicion are established, but you should also know how the police sometimes exploit loopholes in the law.

WHAT SHOULD YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE STOPPED BY THE POLICE?

If you are stopped in traffic by a police officer, that officer may try to trick you into confessing that you were speeding or fleeing from a more serious crime. Anything you say to the police at this time can and will be used against you, so the less you say, the better.

Be polite to the officer in this circumstance. Instead of proclaiming, “I know my rights,” say something like, “I’m sorry, officer, but I would prefer to exercise my right to remain silent.” Staying polite and silent is always the wisest strategy when an officer stops you in traffic.

If a police officer insists on searching your vehicle, do not try to figure out whether the officer has probable cause to conduct a search. Your right to refuse to consent to a search is absolute.

Of course, you need to keep that refusal to consent to a search entirely verbal. Never, ever resist a police officer physically, even if you believe the officer has violated your rights and the law.

WHEN SHOULD YOU CONTACT A CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAW FIRM?

Your refusal to consent to a search is not considered evidence of guilt and does not give the police the right to detain or search you. The truth is that police officers have no probable cause for most of their searches.

police searching cars

Instead, many people are intimidated or tricked into consenting to a search simply because they do not know their rights.

If you’re charged with a crime in southern California on the basis of a police officer’s reasonable suspicion or probable cause, immediately get the advice and legal representation that you need, and arrange to speak with an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.

A good lawyer’s help can make all of the difference, and having that help is your right. Your future – and even your freedom – could depend on it.