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Reasonable suspicion and probable cause: what do they mean?

On Behalf of | Dec 22, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Almost everyone knows that the terms reasonable suspicion and probable cause relate to law enforcement and court cases, but how do they actually impact your rights and the legality of actions taken by police officers? Whether you currently face a criminal charge or want to protect your rights in the future, understanding the real meaning of these phrases helps you.

While the definitions contain some nuance, these two legal standards remain relatively straightforward.

Reasonable suspicion

Police use reasonable suspicion to stop or briefly search a person without breaking the law. Normally, the law requires a warrant before police conduct a search. Pulling someone over for driving erratically or violating traffic rules represents one of the most common examples of an officer utilizing reasonable suspicion. Keep in mind there remain limitations on what officers may do, even if they utilize reasonable suspicion.

Probable cause

Probable cause is part of the Fourth Amendment and means that police reasonably assume criminal activity taking place. Courts generally require probable cause before issuing a warrant for searching property or arresting someone. Those searched and arrested still possess legal rights, but police may have the ability to take more action than they normally could if they have a warrant.

In rarer circumstances, police may even use probable cause for search and seizure without a warrant. These cases can become complicated legal situations for any involved parties.

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause both give police differing abilities to legally search those suspected of criminal activity. Knowing the differences helps you better understand your rights as a citizen.