Police officers have a strict code of conduct to which they must adhere. When taking any kind of action without witnessing a crime firsthand, they must demonstrate to a court that they had a strong belief or found evidence leading them to take action against someone.

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are two different yet closely related terms that police use during stops. Whether you are in a vehicle or on the street, you may hear an officer say one or the other when imploring you to cooperate. It may help you in the future to understand the difference between these two elements of police procedure.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard

When an officer has cause to believe that a person committed a crime, he or she may want to search a vehicle or pat the suspect down. The officer must believe that the person is carrying a weapon before searching for one. The officer must cite why he or she had a reasonable suspicion that the person had a weapon. In cases where a theft just occurred, an officer may stop someone matching the suspect’s description. If there is a belief that this is the perpetrator, the officer may act with reasonable suspicion and search the suspect for the weapon used.

Probable cause gives an officer more access

During a traffic stop, an officer may suspect the driver is under the influence. When the officer first pulls the driver over, he or she must cite what traffic infraction the driver committed. For example, a driver who appears under the influence may do things like:

  • Change lanes without a signal
  • Fail to maintain speed
  • Not stop when required
  • Attempt to make an illegal U-turn

When an officer observes a citable offense, he or she may pull the car to the side of the road. During questioning, the driver may gather the probable cause needed to turn the investigation into one of driving while intoxicated.

Police officers may make mistakes and go against these fundamental elements of the law. In these instances, any case they built may not stand up in court.