What Is Reasonable Suspicion
June 8, 2018
Before the police are legally permitted to make an investigative stop of another person, the police officer must have a definite reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated. This “reasonable suspicion” must be more than just a hunch or a feeling, and it must be based upon objective and articulable facts. If a police officer stops someone without reasonable suspicion, then the stop may be unconstitutional. Here are some examples of stops by police that lack reasonable suspicion.
When Police Make a Stop After Only Observing Legal Behavior
If a police officer stops someone, but the officer has not yet observed anything that would show that a crime has been committed or is being committed, then the stop may be unlawful. Reasonable suspicion will justify an investigative stop, but the reasonable suspicion must be based on concrete observations from the officer. If the police officer—or any other reporting witnesses—has only been present to observe behavior that is completely legal in nature, then a subsequent stop by police is likely unlawful.
An Officer “Had a Feeling” a Crime Was Being Committed
The police must have more than pure speculation to make a stop. If an officer can only claim that he or she had a hunch that a law was being violated—without any other facts to support their hunch—then the stop is unlawful. Reasonable suspicion must be based upon objective, observable facts and circumstances.
Police Mistakenly Believe That a Law Has Been Broken (and it Hasn’t)
Police officers aren’t perfect interpreters of the law. Therefore, the courts have stated that reasonable suspicion may be found if an officer thinks a law has been broken, even if it has not. That said, there are limits to this leniency. To be lawful, a mistake by police must be deemed reasonable. If a law is straightforward, clear and unambiguous, but the police still claim to have made a mistake in understanding or applying the law, then the officer’s mistake may not be found to have been reasonable. This would make the entire stop unlawful.
In a recent case, a Chad West, PLLC client had his marijuana possession charge dismissed after our team was able to show that the arresting officer did not have reasonable suspicion. Our client was stopped on grounds that a headlight was out. The officer noticed the smell of weed in the car, and found an ounce of marijuana. However, upon reviewing the case, we learned that the headlight was not out but was only dimmed in comparison to the other headlight. The Texas Transportation codes states that the headlights must illuminate from 450 feet, which the light clearly did. Hence, the entire case was dismissed.
When Police Make a Stop Before a Crime Occurs
Police officers strive to be proactive, often to prevent a crime before it occurs. However, if an officer stops someone before anything unlawful has even occurred, then the stop itself will likely be deemed unlawful. Until an officer or a reporting witness actually observes a law being broken, the officer will not have reasonable suspicion to make a stop. Such stops inevitably cast doubt on the legality of any ensuing charges.
In another recent case, a Chad West, PLLC client’s DWI charge was dismissed because the arresting officer was unable to prove she had reasonable suspicion to pull our client over for “driving the wrong way.” Our client was turning left at a controlled intersection in an unfamiliar area. After first starting to turn into the wrong lane, he corrected himself while still in the intersection preceded to make a turn into the proper lane. The arresting officer pulled him over for "driving the wrong way." However, our client was still in the intersection when he corrected himself, so he made a legal left-hand turn. The officer did not observe any other violations, so she had no legal justification to pull over our client and investigate him for DWI or any other crime.
When Police Make a Stop Only Because It’s a High-Crime Area
Reasonable suspicion can be based on purely legal behavior only if the behavior suggests that a crime was just committed. Police often try to push this rule to its limits by using someone’s presence in certain “high-crime areas” as a basis for reasonable suspicion. But if police stop a person for driving, riding or jogging in a certain area, and there is no other reason to suggest that the person’s presence there is criminal in nature, then the stop may still be unlawful.
One final area of consideration is community care taking. Essentially, law enforcement may perform a stop if they believe a driver needs help. If a car is broken down or an individual appears to be in some kind of medical distress, police can and should stop to assist as part of their community care-taking function. This area of law enforcement’s duty to provide help arises in some criminal cases where nothing illegal was necessarily observed but the officer says they thought something might be wrong with the driver as a basis to stop them. This is one more area where it is critical to have legal representation if you were charged with a crime after a traffic stop. Know your rights? We do. Need help? Our phones are answered 24/7.