Part 1 - Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

This 3-Part Series acts as an introductory guide to legal topics including Reasonable Suspicion, Probable Cause, the Magistration and Bond Process, and the Charging Process within the state of Texas.

Introduction to Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

In the United States, Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause are two of the most influential legal standards in guiding law enforcement responses and arrests. Although these are longstanding constitutional standards, Law Enforcement Officers have varying understandings of what they mean. This gives an experienced criminal defense attorney the opportunity to consider whether an arrest or search complied with these standards. If an arrest or search did not comply with these standards, there are legal remedies to protect the rights of the Defendant.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable Suspicion refers to the standard that permits law enforcement to briefly stop or detain people to conduct an investigation. This standard is based on specific facts which may suggest that an individual is engaged in criminal activity. The most common application of Reasonable Suspicion is through vehicle stops. If you have ever been pulled over by an Officer, they believed that they had reasonable suspicion that you committed a traffic offense or that you were intoxicated. The Supreme Court defines Reasonable Suspicion as “the sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people … are entitled to rely." Further, it has defined reasonable suspicion as requiring only something more than an "unarticulated hunch." As you can tell from these explanations, Officers do not need much to have Reasonable Suspicion. All they need are some facts or observations that indicate that a crime has been committed or is going to take place that is more than a mere “hunch.” If an Officer has Reasonable Suspicion, they may frisk or detain an individual to investigate further. Although this determination allows Officers to stop and investigate someone, it generally does not allow them to make an arrest or secure a search warrant.

Terry Frisk

In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court recognized that a limited stop and frisk of an individual could be conducted without a warrant based on less than Probable Cause. This means that if an Officer has Reasonable Suspicion, they may stop an individual for questioning and pat them down to search for weapons. This does not give them the right to search through pockets or other belongings for drugs or other illegal materials.

What is Probable Cause?

In the United States, Probable Cause is considered a higher standard than Reasonable Suspicion and it is needed for making arrests, obtaining search warrants, and seizing property. Reasonable suspicion is a step before probable cause. At the point of Reasonable Suspicion, it appears that a crime may have been committed. The situation escalates to Probable Cause when it becomes apparent that a crime has most likely been committed. Probable Cause means that a reasonable person would believe that a crime was in the process of being committed, had been committed, or was going to be committed. To make this determination, Officers must have some type of evidence indicating that a crime has taken place or was going to take place.

Both Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause standards are essential to ensure law enforcement officers operate within the boundaries set forth by the 4th amendment of the U.S constitution. If an officer did not follow these standards, an experienced defense attorney can determine whether or not there is a valid argument to get a search suppressed in court.