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What Is the Difference Between Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion?

In criminal cases, two of the most important legal principles are probable cause and reasonable suspicion. So, what is the difference between the two, and why are they significant?

Probable Cause

Probable cause is what determines whether law enforcement makes an arrest. Without it, officers do not have a legal means to perform an arrest or investigation. Essentially, an officer has probable cause when encountering a situation that could objectively be considered possible criminal activity. Physical evidence can also yield probable cause and is crucial in any criminal case.

Probable cause is not a hunch – there must be enough situational or physical evidence to suggest a crime has occurred so the officer can get a warrant and perform an investigation.


An officer is on their usual beat near the supermarket and liquor store. They hear a commotion and watch as an individual runs out of the liquor store with a backpack that seems to be full. As they are running, they collide with a bicycle and drop the bag on the sidewalk. The bag is ripped open, and outcomes liquor bottles and cash. The officer asks the store owner what happened and discovers that the store was robbed by someone fitting the person's description.

The officer has probable cause to assume that the person running out of the liquor store with a backpack full of liquor bottles and cash is the one responsible for the theft. Because of this, the officer has enough reason to perform the arrest.

Reasonable Suspicion

Probable cause relies on objective and physical evidence, but reasonable suspicion is more of an inclination. Essentially reasonable suspicion makes an officer investigate an area where there may be criminal activity.

In some cases, the officer may find evidence to support probable cause and get a warrant. While reasonable suspicion can lead to an investigation, without probable cause, the officer cannot legally perform a formal search or an arrest.


An officer is stationed near Main St. in front of a jewelry store and clothing boutique. As the officer watches, two individuals get out of a van with darkened windows and stand on the corner in front of the stores. A few minutes later, another person walks up to the pair, and they talk for a bit and walk away. Then, another person crosses the street to meet with eh others, and they speak for a few minutes as well. The whole group then gets into the van and drive around the block before parking in the same spot in front of the stores.

At this point, the officer has reasonable suspicion that these people may be planning to steal from either the jewelry store or the boutique. The officer does not have enough evidence to make an arrest, but they can run the license plates through the database and ask around to see if anyone knows who those people are.

Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion Unite

In many criminal cases, probable cause and reasonable suspicion go hand in hand. An officer may observe a situation because of reasonable suspicion and discover evidence to support probable cause. This often happens with traffic stops where an officer pulls someone over for speeding but discovers proof of intoxication. Alternatively, law enforcement could be investigating someone for theft and find a suspicious closet with a padlock that contains illegal drugs.

Police cannot make an arrest without probable cause, but reasonable suspicion plays a vital role in any criminal investigation.

Understand Your Rights

If you are arrested without proof or an officer attempts to search your home or vehicle without a warrant, they may be lacking probable cause and a warrant. Not only is this a violation of your constitutional rights, but it is also a breach of criminal procedure, and you have grounds for legal action.

Contact May, Rammell & Wells today and protect yourself from unlawful search and seizure.


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