Probable cause versus reasonable suspicion in criminal cases – Those who are lucky enough to never get intimately involved with the criminal justice system have a limited frame of reference when it comes to some legal terminology in criminal law. The main point of reference for most people is television crime dramas. There are many familiar terms that you hear on these crime dramas that make sense and are easily understandable. There are some other terms, however, that are so unique to criminal law and don’t have much applicability to typical life that they are seldom understood.
Two of those terms are “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion.” In this blog, we hope to shed some light on these two topics. Like all our blogs, this is intended for general informational purposes only and not as a substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense attorney.
What is probable cause?
Probable cause is a legal standard of probability for government actors to be able to operate under certain circumstances. Below are a few examples of what the probable cause standard is used for:
- Probable cause for arrest
- Probable cause for a grand jury to indict
- Probable cause to search
- Probable cause to obtain a search warrant
The purpose of this standard is to require a substantial chance or a fair probability that criminal activity has occurred. The requirement of probable cause for government actors mainly stems from the protections found in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
What is reasonable suspicion?
Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard of proof that is lower than probable cause. It is based on specific facts that are taken together with rational inferences. It sounds confusing because it can be. Reasonable suspicion must be more than a mere “hunch,” but it is not as restrictive as probable cause. Some examples where the reasonable suspicion standard is used are as follows:
- Reasonable suspicion for pulling over a vehicle
- Reasonable suspicion to frisk someone
Typically, the reasonable suspicion standard involves analyzing the totality of the circumstances of a given situation. Like probable cause, reasonable suspicion is also rooted in Fourth Amendment protections.
Examples of reasonable suspicion giving rise to probable cause
There are some instances where reasonable suspicion to detain someone may give rise to probable cause to arrest someone. Below are two examples:
- A police officer has reasonable suspicion to pull over a driver because he is speeding, and upon the stop, the officer notices a strong odor of alcohol. The driver is asked to do field sobriety tests, fails the tests, and admits to having had a lot to drink. In this case, probable cause to arrest for DWI would most likely be achieved.
- A police officer has reasonable suspicion to frisk someone because of the totality of the circumstances, and upon that frisk, that person is found to have illegal drugs in his possession. In this case, probable cause to arrest for drug possession would likely be achieved.
If you have been charged with a crime in North Carolina, or charged with a crime in South Carolina, contact us.