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Probable cause and Reasonable Suspicion to Stop a Vehicle:-

The terms  “probable cause” and  “reasonable suspicion” are sometimes used inter changeably.However,these are two different standards, with reasonable suspicion being the less exacting standard.

Reasonable suspicion is all that is required for a law enforcement officer to conduct an investigatory traffic stop.

Probable Cause Standard

While probable cause may be used to support a traffic stop, it is not necessary.

Instead, a reasonable suspicion standard is used that complies with the fourth amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Probable cause is specifically mentioned in the fourth amendment. However, it is not defined there. Instead, the Supreme Court has been tasked with the responsibility of defining this concept and has attempted to do on many occasions. However, Supreme Court justices have stated that this term is not a technical term with a simple definition. Instead, it has been stated to “not require the same type of specific evidence of each element of the offense” as that which would be required support a conviction. Additionally, the standard has been stated to “not deal with hard certainties, but with probabilities” based on commonsense conclusions.

In United States v. Sokolow, it was stated that probable cause means a “fair probability.” Probable cause is required for a law enforcement officer to acquire a search warrant. It is also required for a lawful arrest.

For example, in Beck v. Ohio, the Court stated that probable cause was based on whether officers had knowledge based on facts and circumstances that provided them with reasonably trustworthy information that was sufficient to form the belief that the person arrested had committed a crime.

Reasonable Suspicion Standard

Unlike probable cause, the reasonable suspicion standard was not part of the federal constitution. Instead, it was fashioned by the court to describe suspicion that is less than that of probable cause.

This standard was first announced in 1968 in the case of Terry v. Ohio. In reasonable suspicion cases, the court looks for a lower justification standard.

For example, taking in a suspect requires a higher threshold than briefly frisking him. Reasonable suspicion for traffic stops requires that the officer have articulable facts that criminal activity is afoot. Additionally, these facts should be specific to the stop. A stop based on reasonable suspicion requires a lower degree of evidence in quantity or content, compared to that required to establish probable cause. Additionally, information need not be as reliable for an officer to develop reasonable suspicion. In a nutshell, this standard requires that when the facts are taken together with rational inferences based on the facts, an intrusion is warranted. Reasonable suspicion is usually required in a traffic stop, pedestrian stop or a pat down of a person who may be armed.

Purpose of Investigatory Stops

A law enforcement officer is within his or her rights to stop a vehicle if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation or crime has occurred. An investigatory stop allows the officer to inquire into the reasons for the suspect’s behavior, such as deviating from his or her lane of traffic. However, a stop of this nature must be temporary. It should not last any longer than is absolutely necessary to carry out the purpose of the stop. Additionally, the methods that the officer employs to investigate should be the least intrusive means that are available in order to confirm or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a brief period of time.

Protective Searches

Additionally, if a person is believed to be concealing weapons in a vehicle, the police officer can conduct a protective search of an individual who has been legally stopped. The law enforcement officer must have reasonable suspicion that the individual who is frisked is armed and dangerous.

Reasons for Traffic Stops

There may be several legitimate reasons for a traffic stop. Most commonly these are due to suspicion of criminal activity, traffic violations and equipment violations. However, there are also many other reasons that do not fall under this category.

Furthermore, the test for reasonable suspicion is not what the subjective intent of the officer was, but rather, whether the objective facts and circumstances could have reasonably resulted in an officer forming reasonable suspicion. Specific state laws may provide a list of acceptable reasons to stop a vehicle, such as the law enforcement officer personally observing a public offense, observing a traffic violation or believing that the suspect was involved in a crime. The National Highway Safety Administration has identified several factors that can be used to form reasonable suspicion, including weaving across lane lines, swerving, unexplained acceleration, slow speed, failing to signal, stopping unexpectedly and driving on something other than the roadway.

Sources-International desk.

Shoaibur Rahman Shoaib
LL.M Advocate


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