Reasonable Suspicion V. Probable Cause

CJ 140

Purdue University Global

In order to understand exactly what reasonable suspicion and probable cause are, and what, exactly, that they entail, one must first understand why a law enforcement officer would need to have either of the standards met before conducting a search or seizure. What prompted the need for law enforcement officers to have either reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, in order to search and/or seize?

In order to answer this, one must first dig into the Fourth Amendment (1791), which was created and ratified during a time after the Revolution, in which the British had abused the power of the Writ of Assistance, which had built tension between the colonists and the British, which helped to lead the colonies into declaring war. The determining factor that went into the Fourth Amendment was that it was to protect the citizens against unreasonable search and seizures, allowing citizens to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects .”

The understanding of the Fourth Amendment of today is that it fetters law enforcement officers when they search and/or seize persons or property. The Amendment requires that a warrant be issued only when probable cause has been proven before a magistrate, sworn upon, and the items/persons to be searched and/or seized to be described: There are loopholes around this, however, in order for police to be able to effectively do their jobs, and allowing them to act in certain situations, which will be described later .

Now, to define the term of probable cause, which can be rather difficult to understand when reading through different court cases: Basically, probable cause is established when a reasonable person believes that a crime is either being committed, has been committed, or will be committed. This is the standard set for which a law enforcement officer must meet before seeking an arrest warrant, or arresting an individual via warrantless arrest .

Reasonable suspicion is the standard set for which law enforcement must meet in order to frisk and detain an individual for a brief time. This standard is a step below that of probable cause, but it still requires the use of common sense, and not that of just a hunch: Basically, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is about to be committed, or will be committed soon by the individual in which the officer has detained. Reasonable suspicion cannot be used as cause for either an arrest, or for a warrant.

Now, to get into some of the situations in which a law enforcement officer can perform warrantless searches and/or seizures. As the Fourth Amendment’s contemporary interpretation via the Supreme Court allows for loopholes for law enforcement to perform their duties in certain circumstances as necessary, law enforcement officers do have to rely on their judgement on when those circumstances may occur in order to avoid repercussions: Repercussions can include suppression of evidence, the case being dropped, sanctions against the officer, and possible civil lawsuits.

One such circumstance that allows for a law enforcement officer to be able to perform a warrantless search is when the officer is given permission from the individual to be searched: This permission must not be coerced, it must be given freely. In order to understand how this scenario would work, I will give an example: An officer notices an individual walking down the street who appears to be drunk, or otherwise under the influence, and decides to casually walk up to the individual and start up a conversation. During the conversation, the officer asks for permission to search their person, and the individual gives the permission: The search provides no contraband, or other incriminating evidence, and so the individual is allowed to go their way.

The second scenario which would allow for a warrantless search would be that of the open field exception. The Supreme Court ruled that open fields are not protected, thus there is no expectation of privacy, allowing for any evidence found to be seized. An example of this type of warrantless search in action would be if there was a robbery, the suspect threw the weapon used in the commission of the robbery out into an open field while fleeing, and it was later found by an officer whilst searching for evidence: As this evidence was found in an open area, it is not protected under the Fourth Amendment, and can be seized with no fear of possible repercussions .

A scenario which would involve a warrantless arrest would be that of a crime occurring in front of a law enforcement officer: This would be considered exigent circumstances, wherein the officer must act immediately, with no time to follow protocol and secure a warrant. An example of this exception in action would be if an officer were to view a robbery in progress, the officer is then compelled to act immediately, securing the suspect, and seizing any evidence on their person .

The fourth scenario is the hot pursuit exception, wherein the officer is allowed to enter into a private dwelling when they are in hot pursuit of a suspect. This exception also allows for a search of the area once inside without a warrant. An example of the hot pursuit in action would be a fleeing suspect running into their home, the police in hot pursuit, where they apprehend the suspect. They are then free to search the suspect, as well as the dwelling, for evidence without attaining a search warrant, and all evidence seized is not considered un-lawful .

There are several other exceptions that allow for warrantless searches and seizures, and I could discuss them, but alas, my paper would go on for several more pages. Suffice to say that, while the Fourth Amendment and its’ contemporary interpretations protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures, it also does not tie a law enforcement officers hands when the circumstances call for action. As time progresses, and technology advances, it will be interesting to see how the Fourth Amendment will be interpreted to fit the circumstances, while still allowing for law enforcement to perform their duties.

When doing the research for this assignment, I tried to stick with sites and articles that were either involved in the government in some way, were written by law enforcement officials, public advocates, and in the case of the Fourth Amendment, had historical facts and significance. I evaluated them as per the information provided in the text provided to us, and ensured that the information was, at the least, similar to that held within the textbook. I also ensured that the information was current.