Definitions of probable cause vs. reasonable suspicion

Updated November 22, 2016

The terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion are often confused and misused. While both have to do with a police officer's overall impression of a situation, the two terms have different repercussions on a person's rights, the proper protocol and the outcome of the situation.

Definition of Reasonable Suspicion

Reasonable suspicion means that any reasonable person would suspect that a crime was in the process of being committed, had been committed or was going to be committed very soon.

Legal Repercussions

If a police officer has reasonable suspicion in a situation, he may frisk a suspect or detain the suspect briefly. Reasonable suspicion does not allow for searching a person or car, and is not enough for a search warrant or arrest.

Definition of Probable Cause

Probable cause means that a reasonable person would believe that a crime was in the process of being committed, had been committed, or was going to be committed.

Legal Repercussions of Probable Cause

Probable cause is enough for a search or arrest warrant. It is also enough for a police officer to make an arrest if he sees a crime being committed.

The Difference Between the Two

Reasonable suspicion is a step before probable cause. At the point of reasonable suspicion, it appears that a crime may have been committed. The situation escalates to probable cause when it becomes obvious that a crime has most likely been committed.

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About the Author

R.J. Bowman has a Bachelor's degree in accounting with a minor in English from Pensacola Christian College. After college, she taught English to seventh graders until becoming a mom. At that time, she found freelance writing to be a great way to keep her writing skills sharp.