Definiton of Probable Cause

Many factors contribute to a police officer’s level of authority in a given situation. Understanding the what, when, why, and how of police conduct during a stop is confusing for most people. Varying standards of proof exist to justify varying levels of police authority during citizen contacts. While FyR maintains that it is never a good idea to consent to a search or answer incriminating questions, an understanding of these standards will help the citizen understand when police can surpass constitutional protections.

Reasonable suspicion Facts or circumstances which would lead a reasonable person to suspect that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed

At this stage, police may detain the suspect for a brief period and perform a frisk. In some cases, drug-sniffing dogs may be called to the scene, although officers must cite a reason for suspecting the presence of drug evidence in particular. Refusing a search does not create reasonable suspicion, although acting nervous and answering questions inconsistently can. For this reason, it is best not to answer questions if you have to lie in order to do so. Police authority increases if they catch you in a lie, but not if you refuse to answer questions. As a general rule, reasonable suspicion applies to situation in which police have reason to believe you’re up to something, but they don’t know what it is.

Probable cause Facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed and the person arrested is responsible

At this stage, police may perform a search, and often an arrest. Probable cause generally means police know what crime they suspect you of and have discovered evidence to support that belief. Common examples include seeing or smelling evidence which is in plain view, or receiving an admission of guilt for a specific crime.

For the conscientious citizen, the best advice regarding police authority is to stick to your guns and not waive your constitutional rights under any circumstances. Police officers will often give misleading descriptions of what their authority is, but you have nothing to gain by submitting to coercive police tactics. Police must make ad hoc decisions in the streets regarding their authority level in a given situation and these decisions are subject to review in court. Asserting your rights properly is good way to avoid arrest, but it is an even better way to avoid a conviction.