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Reasonable Suspicion v. Probable Cause: Is Everyone a Suspect



The terms "reasonable suspicion" and "probable cause" often cause confusion because the definitions appear to be similar or identical.

Probable cause means that a reasonable person (or police officer) believes a crime is going to be committed, is in the process of being committed or has been committed. Reasonable suspicion refers to a lesser degree of suspicion, specifically that a reasonable person suspects a crime is going to be committed, is in the process of being committed or has been committed.

In the world of criminal law, these terms have different ramifications:

  • If a police officer has reasonable suspicion to suspect someone of a crime, the cop can briefly detain the person and frisk them for weapons. The cop couldn't arrest the individual unless the frisk produced evidence that gave the police officer probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. Nor could the police officer get a search warrant based solely on reasonable suspicion.
  • However, if the police officer has probable cause to believe a person may be involved in a crime, then the police officer can get a search warrant or arrest the suspect.

Because the threshold for reasonable suspicion is low, you might think that the police can stop anyone on the grounds of reasonable suspicion. However, police officers are trained to look at the totality of the situation before stopping someone on reasonable suspicion. For example, there might be reasonable suspicion if someone is walking down a street in the middle of the night carrying a baseball bat and looking into car windows. There probably isn't reasonable suspicion if police see a person leaving a park in the middle of the day wearing a baseball uniform and carrying a baseball bat.

If you are stopped (sometimes known as a Terry stop), you should ask the police officer, "Am I free to go?" If the police says you're not free to go-in other words, they detain you-you should assert your right to remain silent and request a criminal defense attorney immediately.

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