Police officers have a lot of authority to act in ways that will keep the peace and stop criminal activity – but that authority isn’t absolute. They generally cannot pull over a car, stop a pedestrian or initiate a search of someone’s property without at least reasonable suspicion that something illegal is happening.
Reasonable suspicion is what leads police to judge whether they need to perform certain actions, such as making an arrest or performing a search, but what is reasonable suspicion and when is it used? Here’s what you should know:
It’s a judgment call based on an officer’s knowledge and experience
Reasonable suspicion is the very lowest legal standard of evidence, and it’s really little more than a judgment call based on an officer’s experiences and training. The officer should be able to articulate the basis of their suspicion. For example, they may say that a driver was weaving and that justified the traffic stop on suspicion that the driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Reasonable suspicion can turn into probable cause very easily
Typically, police don’t have to have physical evidence to have reasonable suspicion but often need follow-up evidence, or “probable cause” to make an arrest. It’s a higher legal standard because an arrest deprives someone of their liberty, while a stop or a search is merely inconvenient and unpleasant.
An unregistered gun sitting on a car seat, open alcohol bottles in a car, evidence that someone’s been using drugs or drugs found after a stop and frisk can all be considered probable cause and justify an arrest.
Police frequently make mistakes when it comes to both reasonable suspicion and probable cause. When the police can’t present evidence, then people may be falsely arrested or criminally charged, against their legal rights.