Reasonable Suspicion & Probable Cause: What’s the Difference?

In order to detain, search, and arrest someone in Rhode Island and every state in the country, the police must establish “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” While these two legal concepts are used interchangeably, there are several major differences between them.

Reasonable Suspicion

Law enforcement cannot stop and detain a person without first establishing reasonable suspicion. Considered a less standard compared to probable cause, an officer has reasonable suspicion when specific circumstances or facts are apparent to indicate a criminal offense is—most likely—being, has been, or will be committed in order to lawfully stop and detain someone.

For the most part, law enforcement doesn’t need to be absolutely certain a crime is taking place, but rather the belief a crime is “probably” happening. Although reasonable suspicion can be subjective, it cannot be based on a gut feeling or hunch.

For instance, a police officer notices a motorist driving at night without his headlights on and drifting from one lane to another. Since the driver committing a traffic violation and based on the officer’s experience and training, law enforcement has reasonable suspicion that the driver may be under the influence and can make a traffic stop.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion, which is why it is required to search or seize property without a warrant and/or make an arrest. To prove probable cause, an officer must possess certain circumstances and facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe a crime is being, has been, or will be committed.

Continuing the example above, if a police officer makes a traffic stop and notices the odor of alcohol coming from the driver’s breath or the vehicle, the driver’s red and watery eyes, the driver’s slurred speech, or the driver’s delayed responses to questioning, the officer now has probable cause to make a DUI arrest. In most cases, law enforcement may attempt to further establish probable cause by asking the driver to take a preliminary breath test or field sobriety test.

So, if an officer makes a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion and makes an arrest without probable cause, the traffic stop and arrest are considered unlawful. Without establishing one or both concepts, a defendant’s case can be dismissed.

If you have been arrested in Rhode Island, contact The Law Office of Thomas C. Thomasian, Esq. today at (401) 312-4385 and schedule a free consultation.