Reasonable Suspicion Vs. Probable Cause

When it comes to a DWI arrest, having a hunch of a committed crime is just not enough to make a traffic stop (or at least it isn’t supposed to be). Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are two terms commonly used in DWI. Is there a difference between the two?

Reasonable Suspicion

Reasonable suspicion refers to the rational belief or presumption that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed. It is the lowest threshold of reason needed for an officer to make a traffic stop and can be based on circumstances, facts, and an officer’s experience and training.

Reasonable suspicion is a phrase typically used to justify the investigation of suspicious behavior when a crime may possibly have taken or be taking place. While it is considered to be more than just a hunch or a guess, it is based on less evidence than probable cause.

If an officer has reasonable suspicion, it means that the officer has the right to conduct further investigations. An officer may opine, that you were drifting from one lane to another, made a wide turn, and were driving your vehicle at various speeds.

Together, or alone any of these reasons would potentially give the officer reasonable suspicion to further investigate. In the case of a DWI, an officer may briefly detain you for a limited investigation, and conduct a series of field sobriety tests.

Probable Cause

Probable cause, on the other hand, is a reasonable belief that a crime has been, is currently being, or will be committed. It is based on a term that is used frequently, but sometimes not completely understood—the totality of the circumstances.

While a police officer only needs reasonable suspicion to temporarily stop your vehicle and question you to investigate if you have possibly committed a crime, a higher standard of probable cause must exist for you to actually be arrested. Simply put, probable cause means that an officer has gathered sufficient evidence to believe that you have likely committed a crime, thus justifying your arrest.

Some of the typical facts that often lead to probable cause for arrest are: if the results of any field sobriety test point to probable intoxication, there is an odor of alcohol, you admit to drinking, or you admit to coming from a bar. These facts are elicited by a police officer asking questions after stopping your car. That means that you are the one that has to determine whether or not to provide that information to him or her.

This often goes back to a saying: “You have the right to remain silent, use it”.