Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

Recently someone asked for help in understanding the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause. I went through my files and found a news story that helps explain the difference. You’ll read about it in a moment.

First let me make a few points:

  • Policies and practices vary. Make sure you’re thoroughly familiar with your agency’s guidelines.
  • Definitions vary, and they can be hard to pin down in a particular situation. An administrator can be a good resource if you have questions.
  • In general, “reasonable suspicion” is something that seems questionable to you. It gives you limited rights as an officer. In general, you can ask questions and make a limited search.
  • Probable cause is harder to prove. You have to have specific evidence – facts – to show there’s a reasonable chance a crime was being committed.
  • You need to know what “reasonable” and “probable” mean in your agency, and what a “limited search” might involve.

*  *  *  * 

Officer Aaron Smith of Montgomery, Alabama was charged with murder in the February 25, 2018 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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