When a police officer wants to act against someone, they must have one of two things: reasonable suspicion or probable cause. When you are dealing with law enforcement, it’s important to understand the difference and your rights in each situation.
Reasonable suspicion: search
Reasonable suspicion is essentially what gives a police officer the legal right to perform a search. It means that they have a tangible reason to be suspicious that you may have committed a crime.
While an officer can use reasonable suspicion to search, like a stop and frisk, this does not mean that they can stop anyone on any degree of suspicion. It must, obviously, be reasonable. This means that if you are stopped by an officer, you and your attorney can question whether there were specific reasons that contributed to an officer’s belief that there was a crime committed. Officers must be able to give the reasons for their actions.
Probable cause: arrest, search, warrant
Probable cause is like reasonable suspicion but applies to a wider range of actions that law enforcement may take. If an officer has reasonable cause to believe that you have likely committed a crime or that evidence is available, they must be able to cite cause in an arrest, in getting a warrant or even in a warrantless search and seizure.
It is important to understand that law enforcement cannot arrest you without probable cause based on everything they know at the time of the arrest, or the “totality of the circumstances.” If you are arrested, but there is not probable cause, you and your attorney may be able to prove the arrest invalid.
Both reasonable suspicion and probable cause are meant to protect you as a civilian. Law enforcement must follow these standards before action. If you believe they did not follow them, your rights may have been violated.