As a driver, it is important to understand the legal standards police must meet before they can pull you over or search your car. This helps you know your rights during a traffic stop. Two key legal standards are “reasonable suspicion” for traffic stops and “probable cause” to search a vehicle.
But what is the difference between these two?
Reasonable suspicion for traffic stops
Police need reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to legally stop a vehicle. Reasonable suspicion depends on specific facts that would lead a reasonable officer to think a traffic violation or crime may be occurring. For example, an officer may develop reasonable suspicion for a stop if they see a car swerving, suggesting the driver may be drunk. Reasonable suspicion is a relatively low legal bar.
Probable cause to search a vehicle
Police need probable cause to legally search a vehicle without consent. Probable cause means police must have enough facts and evidence to lead a reasonable person to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime. For example, the smell of marijuana coming from a car can establish probable cause to search it. Probable cause is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion.
Remember, police need reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation to stop you, but probable cause of illegal activity to search your vehicle. The courts could dismiss any evidence found as a result of an illegal search or unjustified stop. Assert your rights politely if you face an unjustified stop or search.