Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

Michigan law enforcement officials must find “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” before detaining a person for questioning, searching a person or their property, obtaining a warrant, or making a lawful arrest. Although these two legal concepts have certain similarities, establishing each of them requires certain circumstances.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion means having a reasonable presumption that a crime has been or will be committed. In other words, an officer can briefly detain an individual based on the facts and circumstances at hand—as well as the officer’s experience and training.

Reasonable suspicion is something more than a gut feeling or hunch. If reasonable suspicion exists, law enforcement officials can detain and question the individual.

For example, an officer patrolling the streets notices a car drifting between lanes and almost hitting other vehicles on the road. Based on the officer’s observations, experience, and training, they have reasonable suspicion that the driver may be operating a vehicle while intoxicated, causing the officer to make a traffic stop.

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What is Required to Establish Probable Cause?

On the other hand, to search or seize property, obtain a warrant, or make an arrest, law enforcement officials need probable cause to do so. Probable cause is established when there is hard evidence or enough facts that a crime is being, has been, or will be committed.

The main difference between the two concepts is that probable cause requires concrete evidence of a criminal offense. At the same time, reasonable suspicion means that a crime appears to be happening, has happened, or will happen. An officer must articulate the facts that formed the basis for probable cause to ensure the arrest holds up in court.

Going back to the previous example, after the driver pulled over and the officer approached the vehicle, the officer noticed the smell of alcohol coming from the driver’s breath, and their speech was slurred. These factors give the officer probable cause to make an arrest; however, the officer asks the driver to perform a field sobriety test or take a preliminary breath test to establish probable cause further.

Remember, if law enforcement officials fail to establish reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause, the arrest is considered unlawful, which means any evidence gathered before the arrest can be inadmissible in court. Without key evidence to prove guilt, the criminal case could be dismissed.

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