Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion: What’s the Difference?

probable cause vs. reasonable suspicion

To place someone under arrest, police must have both reasonable suspicion and probable cause. While the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause is slight, it is very important and can have significant implications if you have been charged with a crime. The question of probable cause vs. reasonable suspicion determines whether your case has been handled properly.

An arrest often begins with a police officer’s reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred. But to place a suspect under arrest and prosecute them for having committed a crime, a police officer must be able to point to specific facts and circumstances that cause him to believe a crime has occurred. If the officer cannot establish probable cause to believe a crime has occurred, he must stop the investigation.

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, your criminal defense lawyer may be able to challenge whether the police officer had probable cause to continue with the investigation. If not, any evidence that was illegally obtained should not be considered by the judge or jury. By successfully challenging the probable cause requirement, it can be easier to negotiate a favorable plea bargain, or even have the case against you dismissed.

Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion: What’s the Difference?

Most arrests begin with a police officer’s reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed. As the officer continues to investigate, he will try to establish probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. If the officer cannot establish probable cause, the investigation should stop.

Reasonable Suspicion

Reasonable suspicion is a fairly low evidentiary threshold that allows a police officer to temporarily stop a person they believe has committed a crime. With reasonable suspicion, a police officer can detain, frisk, or question a suspect.

To establish reasonable suspicion, there must be facts or circumstances which create a reasonable belief that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed.

Reasonable suspicion means that a police officer has a reasonable belief, based on their years of training and experience, that criminal activity has occurred. It is more than a guess or a hunch, but less than probable cause.

Once a police officer has established reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has occurred, he must be able to establish probable cause if he wishes to move forward with the investigation and ultimately make an arrest.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion. Once established, probable cause gives a police officer the power to make an arrest, search a person or property, or obtain a warrant.

To establish probable cause, a law enforcement officer must be able to identify specific facts that form the basis for the reasonable belief that a crime has occurred.

Police officers can establish probable cause in a number of different ways. They may rely on eyewitnesses, confidential information, or their own observations when interacting with someone they believe has committed a crime.

The key difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion is that, for the former, police must be able to identify specific and particular facts that support their belief that the accused person committed the crime.

Once probable cause has been established, police are authorized to make an arrest, and prosecutors have sufficient legal grounds to bring criminal charges.

A Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Challenge the Basis for Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause

Probable cause is important because it allows a police officer to place someone under arrest, with or without an arrest warrant. Probable cause is also the standard the prosecutor must meet to bring charges against someone suspected of committing a crime.

While a police officer is the only one who makes the initial assessment of whether there is probable cause to believe a crime occurred, a judge has the final word on whether the police officer’s opinion was sufficient.

After reviewing the statements of the officer, a judge may conclude that the police officer did not have enough evidence to establish probable cause and may order that the case be dismissed.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can challenge the officer’s explanation as to what specific evidence they believe establishes probable cause.

Someone who has been accused of committing a crime can challenge a finding of probable cause on both factual and legal grounds. A criminal defense lawyer can challenge both the significance of the evidence that was collected, as well as whether that evidence rises to the level necessary to establish probable cause to believe a criminal act occurred.

If a criminal defense lawyer successfully challenges a probable cause finding, any evidence that was discovered as a result of the illegal search or seizure may be excluded from trial. This can make it more difficult for the prosecutor to secure a conviction, which can lead to a favorable plea bargain, or having the case dismissed.

If you have been accused of a crime, it is important that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can offer advice on whether police established probable cause to place you under arrest. A criminal defense lawyer can also challenge the probable cause determination, and work to have the charges against you reduced or the case dismissed.

The Stowe Law Firm: Serious Representation for Serious Criminal Charges

If you have been charged with a crime, it is important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible.

At the Stowe Law Firm, PLLC, North Carolina criminal defense attorney Ryan Stowe defends people who are facing criminal charges, and frequently challenges whether police officers had probable cause to place someone under arrest.

With offices in Salisbury, North Carolina, the Stowe Law Firm represents people in Rowan County, Mecklenburg County, Davidson County, Cabarrus County, and Stanly County.

Learn more about Ryan Stowe and his criminal defense team, and the cases we handle. Get answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.

About Ryan Stowe

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Ryan Stowe is the principal attorney at Stowe Law Firm, PLLC. Mr. Stowe is proud to be practicing in his hometown of Salisbury, NC, and is a first generation Rowan County attorney. Mr. Stowe takes pride in being a criminal defense attorney. He focuse…

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