By far, the most important concept that we need to explain to clients and their families is probable cause and reasonable suspicion. The terms are often used interchangeably but they are different. This difference is very important. Criminal charges are the result of investigations. Even those charges that start with an anonymous tip are investigated by police before the district attorney’s or a prosecutor’s office decides to bring charges against a person.
Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion – What is the difference?
Before obtaining a warrant or arresting someone, police must have probable cause, the requirement that protects a person’s Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure (the arrest). Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances within the police officer’s (or another law enforcement official’s) knowledge are sufficient. A reasonable person would believe that the person arrested or searched was committing or had committed a crime.
While police need probable cause to arrest, they need only reasonable suspicion to start an investigation. Consider reasonable doubt to be a lower form of probable cause.
Both probable cause and reasonable suspicion ask whether a good person in the officer’s position would act on the information. Courts use all evidence available or a “totality of the circumstances” analysis to determine if the probable cause or reasonable suspicion exists.
Keep in mind that the standards for probable cause and reasonable suspicion are much less than what is needed to convict a crime person. Probable cause authorizes a more severe intrusion, and therefore, law enforcement must meet a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. Probable cause is a fair probability or a good ground that a crime was committed or is being committed.
While reasonable suspicion requires fewer articulable facts, the officer must still demonstrate that he or she had more than just a subjective belief or hunch. Reasonable suspicion permits the brief stop of a person and may justify limited searches.
Many arrests occur after searches. While there are exceptions, law enforcement officials must usually have a warrant to conduct any search of a person’s home, vehicle, or belongings. The establishment of probable cause is crucial to a search warrant because the search violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution without it.
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With over 20 years of litigation and jury trial experience in local criminal cases involving misdemeanors, felonies and federal offenses, Southern California criminal attorney Karren Kenney knows the importance of developing a comprehensive and effective strategy in defending her clients. Each client we take is assigned an entire defense team to work on all aspects of their case. We know how stressful it is for anyone to have to go through the criminal court process and we are here to help, not to judge anyone for their past mistakes.