Probable cause versus reasonable suspicion
You have probably heard the terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion in the context of a crime. You might assume they mean the same thing, or know that there are two different meanings, but be unsure of what they are.
Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are two different legal standards. Police officers must meet these standards at certain points in a police investigation.
Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard. A police officer must have reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime or traffic violation before they can stop you or pull you over. They cannot stop you randomly or based on a hunch or bad feeling.
Reasonable suspicion means observing actions or behavior that would make any reasonable person suspect that a crime was being committed or about to be committed. For example, if a police officer sees you driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, they likely have reasonable suspicion that you are committing the crime of speeding.
Probable cause involves a higher standard. Police must have probable cause before they can arrest you or obtain a warrant to search your property or seize any evidence.
If you are pulled over or stopped by a police officer, they can ask you questions. Aside from giving them your name and any requested documents they ask for, such as a driver’s license or registration during a traffic stop, you do not have to answer any other questions.
At some point they must either arrest you or let you go. If you are not answering questions and they continue to ask them, you can ask if you are under arrest and/or if you are free to go. Without probable cause, they must let you go.
In the above example, if you are pulled over for speeding based on reasonable suspicion and the police officer smells alcohol on your breath and hears you slurring your words, this might give them probable cause to arrest you for DUI.
Understanding the difference between these terms and the standards involved is important for knowing if your rights are being violated during an encounter with the police.