In a criminal case, it is common to hear the terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion – and they may even be used interchangeably sometimes. But what do these terms really mean, and how do they potentially affect you if you are arrested and charged with a crime? The attorneys at The Law Office of Scott C. Nolan, PLLC, explain the differences between reasonable suspicion and probable cause and why these concepts are important to help you form an effective defense strategy if you are being charged with a crime.

What Is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is a legal term used to describe when a police officer or other law enforcement agent has a particular reason to believe that a person is engaging in criminal activity. It is usually based on nothing more than a hunch or personal observations that, applied to an officer’s training and experience, may lead to the conclusion that a person may be involved in criminal activity. For example, if an officer sees a person in a high-crime area and the person appears to be running away after seeing the officer approaching, the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the person could have been involved in a crime.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, which requires more concrete evidence that a person is engaging in criminal activity. It is based on personal feelings and not generally supported by evidence, but it can give the officer an opportunity to investigate the situation further to potentially find evidence to confirm their suspicion.

What Constitutes Probable Cause in a Criminal Case?

The legal concept of probable cause describes when a police officer or other law enforcement agent has enough evidence to reasonably believe that a person has committed a crime. Rather than a personal feeling or a hunch, probable cause requires evidence such as eyewitness accounts, surveillance footage, or physical evidence collected at the scene of a crime.

Probable cause is a higher evidentiary standard than reasonable suspicion. It requires actual knowledge of a criminal activity that has been or is in the process of being committed, along with hard evidence to support the case.

What Are the Legal Repercussions of Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion in a Case?

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are two important components of a criminal case. In general, a law enforcement officer may detain a person for further investigation solely based on reasonable suspicion. The officer suspects that the person they are detaining may be involved in criminal activities, but they do not yet have concrete evidence to support their claim. Reasonable suspicion allows the officer to look for proof of a crime to confirm whether their initial hunch was correct or not.

In some cases, reasonable suspicion can quickly lead to probable cause. If a suspect is detained based on reasonable suspicion but then the officer finds hard evidence of criminal activity, then that officer now has probable cause to make an arrest or conduct a search as the evidence recovered points to actual knowledge of a crime being committed. The officer can then move forward with their investigation, gathering further evidence if needed. They can also decide to release the detained suspect if the suspicion turns out to be false.

Can an Arrest Be Made Solely Based on Reasonable Suspicion?

In plain terms, reasonable suspicion is a low evidentiary standard that is usually nothing more than an educated guess or even a “gut feeling” that something may be going on. An officer may believe they have observed a suspect acting in an unusual manner and compare their observation to what they know from their training and experience, which may trigger a red flag that leads the officer to take action to verify if their suspicion is true or not. There is usually no physical evidence yet, just personal observations and maybe circumstantial evidence.

In order to make an arrest and charge someone with a criminal offense, a law enforcement officer must act based on probable cause rather than reasonable suspicion. For example, a person cannot be arrested for marijuana possession simply because a police officer believes they smelled marijuana in the person’s vehicle, but no trace of the drug was found in the vehicle or on the suspect.

On the other hand, suppose that same person was driving in an erratic manner, speeding or weaving through lanes, when a police officer decides to pull them over and then smells marijuana coming from the vehicle. The officer then observes the person is acting as if they are intoxicated and under the influence of marijuana. At this point, they may have enough probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle and possibly detain the driver for driving under the influence. If the officer finds marijuana or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle and the driver’s blood test results come back positive, then the officer may have enough physical evidence to support a DUI and drug possession charge. In short, an arrest cannot be made based on reasonable suspicion alone – there must be enough probable cause and evidence of a crime in order for an arrest to be made.

The concepts of reasonable suspicion and probable cause are important to understand if you are charged with a crime because they are some of the first aspects an attorney will question in order to determine if the search and arrest were conducted in a legal manner. In other words, if an attorney can prove that the officer who arrested their client did not have enough probable cause for doing so, the entire case could end up being dismissed. If you need help fighting back criminal charges in Virginia, contact The Law Office of Scott C. Nolan, PLLC, at 703-688-9236.