Probable Cause vs Reasonable Suspicion in Wake County

The Differences Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause are Slight, Yet Important

The Supreme Court of North Carolina distinguishes Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause. The differences are slight but significant in fighting for your rights in cases involving drug crimes, drunk driving cases, or other scenarios in North Carolina law. Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard used in criminal law that is below the threshold of probable cause, yet is still necessary for certain law enforcement actions. Probable cause requires a higher level of hard evidence than reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause can have implications if you have been charged with a crime. The difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion determines whether your case has been handled properly.

Our experienced Raleigh DWI lawyers know how important it is for citizens to understand what Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause are. In this article, we define each standard and detail the distinctions between the two.

Reasonable Suspicion

Reasonable suspicion refers to the belief, based on specific facts and circumstances, that a person may be involved in illegal activities or may pose a threat to public safety. Reasonable suspicion allows law officers to detain an individual briefly or conduct a limited search to further investigate potential illegal activity. This standard is not as high as for probable cause.

Objective reasonableness means that the suspicion a crime has been committed must be based on facts and information that would lead a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, to believe that the action taken by the officer was justified. This means that police must have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime, is currently in the process of committing a crime, or plans to commit a crime. Objective reasonableness as a standard helps safeguard individuals’ rights and ensures that law enforcement actions are not based on gut feelings or subjective and arbitrary factors.

Any type of criminal case is subject to reasonable suspicion, including DWI and traffic offenses. Here are some examples of actions that may establish reasonable suspicion for a police officer to stop someone for a DWI or at a DWI checkpoint:

  • Weaving
  • Making an illegal turn or doing so without using a turn signal
  • Frequent braking
  • Drifting between lanes
  • Having a tailgate out
  • Driving too slow or too fast
  • Driving when a vehicle’s registration has expired

Key Factors in Establishing Reasonable Suspicion

Articulable Facts: A law enforcement officer must be able to articulate the reasons for their suspicion and provide factual information supporting their belief.

Observations and Behavior: A law enforcement officer may consider the behavior, actions, and appearance of an individual when assessing reasonable suspicion. Certain factors such as suspicious behavior, unusual movements, surreptitious gestures, or attempts to evade law enforcement can contribute to reasonable suspicion.

Information and Tips: Information received from reliable sources, informants, or anonymous tips can be taken into account. However, the credibility and the truthfulness of the source may influence the weight given to the information when establishing reasonable suspicion.

Location: The location and context of the encounter can be relevant in determining reasonable suspicion. Areas that are full of crime or places that are known for illegal activities may heighten an officer’s suspicions; however, that is not enough to establish reasonable suspicion on its own.

Time and Circumstance: The circumstances around the encounter, as well as the time of day or night, can contribute to the reasonable suspicion analysis. For example, suspicious behavior that occurs late at night and in an area where drug trafficking is prevalent may raise the level of suspicion.

Training and Experience: A law enforcement officer’s training and experience can be a factor in evaluating reasonable suspicion. Whether the officer is experienced in recognizing patterns of criminal activity or has familiarity with specific modes of operation may influence their assessment.

Probable Cause

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches or seizures or the issuance of a search warrant without probable cause. Probable cause has a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion. The primary difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion is police officers must be able to identify specific and particular facts that support their belief that the accused person committed the crime.

Once it is established, probable cause gives a police officer the authority to make an arrest, search a person or property, or obtain a warrant. Then prosecutors have sufficient legal grounds to bring criminal charges.

The key for a law enforcement officer to establish probable cause is the ability to identify specific facts that form the basis for the reasonable belief that a crime has occurred. Probable cause is established in a number of different ways such as eyewitnesses, confidential information, or an officer’s observations when interacting with someone they believe has committed a crime.

Key Factors in Establishing Probable Cause

Evidence Collected and Considered as Sum Total: Probable cause often relies on the aggregation of multiple pieces of information or evidence that, when combined, create a strong belief that a crime has been committed or that a particular individual is involved.

Expertise and Training of the Officer: Law enforcement officers who have experience and specialized training in investigative techniques, evidence collection, and legal standards are better able to recognize patterns of criminal behavior or interpret complex information. This contributes to their ability to establish probable cause accurately.

Information from Reliable Sources: Probable cause can be established by obtaining information from reasonably trustworthy sources, including eyewitnesses, informants with a proven track record of providing accurate information, or evidence gathered through lawful means.

Comparing Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion

Understanding the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause is imperative for comprehending the varying levels of authority and evidence required.

Requires a Level of Certainty and Evidence

When comparing reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and factors that contribute to a property search, the primary difference is the amount of concrete evidence that is needed.

Probable cause mandates that a belief is supported by sufficient facts and circumstances that indicate the likelihood of criminal activity or the involvement of a specific individual. In comparison, reasonable suspicion requires a belief that is based on specific facts that can be articulated, but the level of certainty is not as high as what is required for probable cause.

The Direct Effect on Law Enforcement Officials

Law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion to initiate limited stops or detentions, allowing them to briefly detain individuals or conduct brief searches for further investigations. Reasonable suspicion allows this initial action but doesn’t give them the same powers as probable cause.

Probable cause empowers enforcement officials to take more intrusive actions like making arrests or obtaining search warrants. It requires a higher level of certainty and a stronger evidentiary basis before these more extensive actions can be taken.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a DWI Lawyer in Raleigh

If you are facing a DWI charge or another criminal charge such as drug trafficking, realize that you are up against serious consequences if found guilty. Our team of experienced attorneys can make sure that your rights are protected. We will represent you and will fight your case to get the best practical outcome. Call us today at (919) 845-6688 to speak with an attorney for a free case review or fill out the form below to get started.

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