If a police officer stops a person to search them, they must have - at the very least - reasonable suspicion to do so. In this article, we’ll define the term “reasonable suspicion” and contrast it with another standard, probable cause.
Reasonable suspicion is a standard used in criminal procedure to determine the legality of a police officer’s decision to perform a search. In order to legally stop and search a person, courts require that a police officer have one of the following (written in order of what gives an officer authority to perform a search from most to least):
Note that while an officer cannot search a person without at least reasonable suspicion, they can still stop them and ask them questions. Refusing to answer questions does not create reasonable suspicion, but acting nervous and giving inconsistent answers can. A Fourth Amendment refusal to search requests also does not create reasonable suspicion.
Reasonable suspicion is the lowest standard of the three. Essentially, reasonable suspicion does not require hard evidence, but it does require more than a hunch. To qualify as reasonable suspicion, an officer should have an objective, specific information that leads them to suspect a person has or is about to, commit a crime.
That being said, a law enforcement officer does not have to be even 50% certain that the detainee has done something illegal for it to qualify as reasonable suspicion.
Examples of circumstances that may contribute to reasonable suspicion include:
Probable cause is a more rigorous standard than reasonable suspicion. To qualify as probable cause, there should be facts and circumstances known to a law enforcement officer that would lead a prudent man to believe that a suspect has committed a crime, is committing a crime or has evidence of a crime.
Neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause is an exact science. In determining whether or not a police officer had the authority to perform a search, the courts will consider the totality of the circumstances known to the officer.