The Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion & Probable Cause

For law enforcement to detain or pull someone over, conduct a search on a home or vehicle, or make an arrest, officers must establish reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Although these two “burdens of proof” were established by the U.S. Supreme Court and used interchangeably, there are several key differences between them.

Reasonable Suspicion

A police officer can establish reasonable suspicion if certain facts or circumstances are present that would make an officer believe that a criminal offense is being, has been, or will be committed. While this concept is a lesser standard than probable cause, an officer must have more than a gut feeling or hunch.

For the most part, an officer doesn’t have to rely on absolute certainty to establish reasonable suspicion, but rather the possibility. This concept prevents crimes from happening by stopping and briefly detaining individuals if law enforcement suspects criminal activity.

For example, a police officer on the road notices that a driver is erratically swerving between lanes and narrowly missing another vehicle. Based on training and experience, the officer has reasonable suspicion that the driver may be driving under the influence and can pull him over.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. In order to establish probable cause and conduct a search or make an arrest, an officer must show there is enough evidence that a reasonable person would believe another individual committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

Returning to the example above, if the officer smells alcohol coming from the driver’s breath or inside the vehicle, notices the driver is slurring his words, or sees that the driver’s eyes are red, the officer has probable cause to make a DWI arrest. In addition, the officer may attempt to further establish probable cause by asking the driver to perform a field sobriety test or a preliminary breathalyzer test.

If you have been arrested for a criminal offense in Minneapolis, MN, contact Brockton D. Hunter P.A. today at (612) 979-1112 and schedule a free consultation.