reasonable suspicion | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Policing / Procedural Law

Reasonable suspicion is an evidentiary standard falling between a mere hunch and probable cause; reasonable suspicion must be based on articulable facts based on a reasonable person test.

Compare with probable cause

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard that falls between a mere hunch and probable cause. It is a standard that is frequently used by law enforcement officers to justify brief investigatory stops or detentions, such as a stop and frisk or a traffic stop.

In order for reasonable suspicion to exist, there must be specific, articulable facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that criminal activity is afoot. These facts can include a suspect’s behavior, the time and location of the behavior, and any other relevant circumstances that would indicate criminal activity.

The standard is derived from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The Supreme Court has held that reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, which is required for a warrant to be issued or for a full arrest to be made.

In order to establish it, law enforcement officers must be able to articulate specific, objective facts that support their suspicion. The facts must be such that a reasonable person in the officer’s position would also have suspected criminal activity.

Reasonable suspicion is a flexible standard that can vary depending on the circumstances of the case. For example, in a high-crime area, officers may have a lower threshold for establishing reasonable suspicion, as the prevalence of criminal activity in the area may make it more likely that any given individual is engaged in criminal activity.

However, despite the flexibility of the reasonable suspicion standard, it is important that law enforcement officers do not use this standard as a pretext for engaging in racial profiling or other forms of discriminatory behavior. The Supreme Court has held that race cannot be the sole basis for establishing reasonable suspicion and that officers must be able to articulate specific, objective facts that support their suspicion.

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Last Modified: 04/13/2023


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