What is the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause?”
You ever have a discussion with a lawyer and hear the words “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”? I am sure this left you wondering what exactly does “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” even mean? This is a common question, especially in the DWI/DUI context.
Both reasonable suspicion and probable cause are used—sometimes interchangeably—when referring to a DWI. However, there is a difference between the two terms.
What is it and how does it apply to a DWI? In the DWI/DUI context, in order stop a vehicle and detain the driver, an officer needs a reasonable suspicion. During this limited detention is when an officer could expand the detention and request a driver to do field sobriety tests if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you have been drinking.
A reasonable suspicion “means a basis for forming a belief based on specific facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts” that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed. Under this standard, a mere hunch or guess is not enough. The police officer must be able to point to and articulate specific facts that indicate criminal activity is afoot. Reasonable suspicion can be based on facts, circumstances, and the officer’s training and experience.
For example, an officer may have a reasonable suspicion to stop you if you drift across the lane dividers, are driving at inconsistent/varying speeds, and brake frequently. These factors together may indicate to the officer—based on their training and experience—that the driver may be intoxicated. Likewise, any violation of a statute will give an officer reasonable suspicion, such as speeding, not using a turn signal, or having a taillight out.
The reasonable suspicion standard requires more than a mere hunch or guess, but is a lower standard than probable cause. This standard is relatively easy for police officers to meet.
Probable cause is a higher standard and in the DWI/DUI context, an officer needs probable cause to make an arrest.
Probable cause is difficult to define as there is no specific rule stating what meets the probable cause standard and what does not. Probable cause is viewed as a “’practical, non-technical’ standard that calls upon the ‘factual and practical considerations of everyday life’” on which reasonable people rely. Whether or not probable cause is met typically depends on the totality of the circumstances—everything the police officer knows or reasonably believes at the time. Generally speaking, probable cause in a DWI has been defined as bring “more likely than not” that a person is under the influence.
For example, an officer may have a reasonable suspicion to pull a car over based upon some erratic driving (such as weaving), but then when the officer makes contact with the driver, the officer observes bloodshot and watery eyes, slurred speech, the odor of alcohol, the driver admits that he had been drinking, the driver has poor balance, and does poorly on field sobriety tests. In this case, based on the “totality of the circumstances,” there would be probable cause to make an arrest. The line between reasonable suspicion and probable cause is not a black-and-white line, and it takes a trained DWI lawyer to be able to determine whether or not the police have enough evidence to go forward with a case.