Reasonable Suspicion Laws

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard by which law enforcement officers may justify certain authoritative actions. With reasonable suspicion, a police officer may briefly detain you and frisk the outside of your clothes. Though not as stringent a standard as probable cause, reasonable suspicion involves more than a police officer just having a “hunch.”

Reasonable suspicion defined

Before a police officer can detain you, he or she must have a basis to suspect criminal wrongdoing. In other words, police cannot stop and frisk you at will, only to cite reasonable suspicion after the fact. In a court of law, a judge determines whether the circumstances surrounding a stop would raise suspicion in the mind of an objectively reasonable officer—hence the term “reasonable suspicion.”

An officer conducting a patrol in a high-crime area, for example, could have reasonable suspicion to detain a person who flees after seeing the police car. Someone who throws away an object at the sight of a police officer also may be detained on reasonable suspicion, as could someone who matches the description of a wanted suspect.

What does reasonable suspicion authorize a police officer to do?

Law enforcement officers who cite reasonable suspicion are legally authorized to briefly detain citizens and conduct pat-downs for weapons, if there is reason to believe the individual is armed. There are limitations to what officers may do with reasonable suspicion, however. For instance, while police may frisk the outside of your clothes if they believe you are armed, they may not search the inside of your clothes or pockets without probable cause.

Reasonable Suspicion Examples