Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion

A news story in this morning’s newspaper started me thinking about an important issue for police writers: The difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” Officer Aaron Smith of Montgomery, Alabama is charged with murder in the February 25 death of Greg Gunn, a 58-year-old male who lived in a high-crime neighborhood.

Gunn, who was black, was walking home from a card game at 3 AM. When Smith (who is white) stopped Gunn and began a body search, Gunn ran. Smith used his stun gun and a metal baton to subdue Gunn, who died a few yards from his front door. Smith initially said that Gunn had attacked him but has backed off from that claim. You can read the entire story at this link: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/03/03/alabama-police-officer-charged-in-shooting-death-58-year-old-man.html.

This case underlines the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” Smith’s attorney, Mickey McDermott, said Gunn’s presence in the neighborhood at 3 AM was reason enough for Officer Smith to stop and question him.

“He’s a suspect of being in a high-crime area,” the attorney said. “He’s in a high-crime area, at three o’clock in the morning, dressed in all black. Can you not draw those conclusions?”

But is “reasonable suspicion” sufficient justification for the use of deadly force? State Bureau of Investigation Agent Jason DiNunzio doesn’t think so.

This case points to the necessity for understanding the difference between “reasonable suspicion” (which allows questioning and a limited search) and “probable cause” (which permits a more thorough search and possible detention). Officers need to be thoroughly familiar with the definitions, laws, and policies for their jurisdiction.

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