What is the Difference Between Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are often confused because they typically go hand-in-hand. When police officers detain someone, search their property or body or arrest someone for any alleged crime, they usually identify reasonable suspicion, followed closely by probable cause. While the terms are often used interchangeably they are slightly different in terms of their legal definition.

What is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

police arresting man As stated by the Constitution, probable cause guarantees every American citizen freedom from illegal or unmerited searches and seizures. It protects citizens by ensuring that a legal search warrant is obtained before any such measures are taken. Probable cause allows law enforcement professionals to gain the right through a warrant to either make an arrest or to search property or a person.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is defined by the United States Supreme Court as:

The sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people…are entitled to rely.

After 1968 when the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials can detain someone (briefly) if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has either been committed, is currently being committed, or is about to be committed, the term reasonable suspicion became part of the mainstream lexicon. In most cases, reasonable suspicion is left up to officers’ own judgment. As such, it is much broader in nature than probable cause. Of course, it still must be based on fact, and not merely on feelings or even an officer’s intuition.

A good example of reasonable suspicion in action is a patrol officer noticing a driver swerving, this gives them reasonable suspicion that the driver might be intoxicated and is enough reason to pull them over and check it out. The reasonable suspicion of the officer comes from their personal experience and knowledge of the subject or crime in question. In other words, they understand what to look for because they know the signs a crime is being committed.

What is the Difference Between Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion?

These two legal terms are very similar in definition but legally speaking provide a different set of rules for arresting officers. While officers can act on a suspicion-based or experienced-based thought-process, they are unable to arrest someone unless they also have probable cause. Probable cause is also defined by Black Law’s Dictionary as “amounting to more than mere suspicion but less than evidence that would justify a conviction.”

What Do You Do If Detained For Either Probable Cause or Reasonable Suspicion

If you find yourself facing criminal charges due to either a probable cause or reasonable suspicion-based arrest, contact us today. We will help you by evaluating all the arresting officers’ suspicions and assertions, and we will ensure there was probable cause against you and that you weren’t treated unlawfully. If we find there were missteps by the arresting party, in some cases, we can have charges either dropped or minimized.

The Nolan Law Firm