Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are two concepts that come into the picture during drunk driving traffic stops. While they may sound similar or interchangeable, these concepts are vastly different.
In the simplest terms, reasonable suspicion is a standard that enables police to initiate a traffic stop, but probable cause is the higher standard required for an arrest.
What is reasonable suspicion?
Reasonable suspicion allows for a temporary and brief intervention, such as stopping someone to ask questions or even conducting a quick pat-down search. This must be based on observations and not merely on a hunch or gut feeling.
There must be some circumstances that would lead to a reasonable person drawing the same conclusion as the police officer. An example is if a police officer sees a vehicle swerving between lanes because that suggests that the driver might be impaired.
How does it differ from probable cause?
Probable cause requires a greater degree of certainty. An officer needs factual or direct evidence strong enough to justify a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. Probable cause is the standard required to secure a search or arrest warrant. It also allows law enforcement to make an arrest. A failed standardized field sobriety test or chemical test are considered probable cause for an arrest.
Understanding the differences between reasonable suspicion and probable cause can help clarify what actions law enforcement officers can legally take. For example, an officer might stop you based on reasonable suspicion, but they can’t proceed to a full search or arrest unless they establish probable cause.
Knowing these distinctions can help you understand your rights and the officer’s responsibilities during a traffic stop for suspicion of drunk driving. They may also play a role in your criminal defense strategy. Having experienced legal guidance can help.