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Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion: What’s the Difference?

In the United States, there are two primary reasons the police can take action against a person. These are the standards that are referred to as reasonable suspicion and probable cause. (1) Even though these are similar in application and definition, there are some key differences between these two.

If you want to ensure your rights are protected, it’s crucial that you understand the differences between these two. Here you can learn more about how the two legal concepts differ.

Reasonable Suspicion

This is a concept police officers use to justify the pursuit of criminals. With reasonable suspicion, the police have the right to go after a criminal if there is a credible reason to believe that their efforts will uncover anything that is related to a crime.(2) When this is invoked, police have to back their actions up with detailed facts or conclusions that are considered credible.

The parameters for the issue of reasonable suspicion were established during a 1968 Supreme Court case (3). At this time, the court ruled that officers have the right to briefly detail someone, based on their experience and training, if there was reasonable suspicion that the person committed a crime, is engaging in criminal activities, or has plans to commit a crime.

Probable Cause

To issue a warrant, seize property, search property, or issue a warrant, this is required. According to The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (4), citizens have the right to freedom from any unreasonable searches or seizures and that if probable cause is not present, a search warrant cannot be issued.

For an officer to make an arrest or seize your property without a warrant, probable cause must exist. While the Fourth Amendment doesn’t define probable cause specifically, a 1949 ruling by the Supreme Court (5) established the parameters. These state that probable cause exists when the circumstances and facts within a police officer’s knowledge and information are sufficient to warrant a reasonable conclusion that a crime is being committed.

The Importance of Understanding Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

Because DUIs and DWIs, along with other arrests that result in a criminal charge, are made without the use of a warrant, it is essential that law enforcement officers and citizens fully understand all the basic elements of both probable cause and reasonable suspicion.

It is crucial that an officer be able to articulate their use through an Affidavit of Probable Cause. If there is no evidence or facts to support this, improper police action may cause dismissed or reduced criminal charges.

If you are in a situation where you are facing criminal charges, but you don’t believe the officers had reasonable suspicion or probable cause, it is smart to contact Kitchin Law for help. We can review the facts of your case and ensure you receive the legal representation required. Being informed and knowing your rights is key to protecting them.


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