illegal search and seizure

What is “Reasonable Suspicion” and How Might it Help Your Criminal Defense or Appeal?

Generally, persons are protected by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This means that, before law enforcement officials can conduct a search or seize potential evidence or arrest an alleged criminal (seize the body of the person), law enforcement officials must obtain permission — approval — from a judge. Generally, such approvals/permissions are called “warrants.” Thus, for a search and seizure to be constitutional, a warrant must be obtained in advance. If law enforcement officials violate these constitutional rules, then any evidence obtained through an unlawful search and/or seizure will be excluded from a subsequent criminal trial. Importantly, if any unlawfully obtained evidence is NOT excluded, then such failure can be the basis for a successful post-conviction appeal.

What is Probable Cause

The legal standard for a warrant to issue is “probable cause.” Probable cause is said to exist when facts and circumstances would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed.

Warrantless arrests, searches, and seizures are allowed based on the same probable cause standard if there is not enough time for law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant in advance. For example, if there is probable cause, the police can arrest a defendant if there is a danger that the defendant will flee or that evidence will be despoiled. But, after a warrantless arrest, there must generally be a determination by a judge that probable cause did, in fact, exist.

Limited Exceptions

There are some limited exceptions to the requirement that probable cause exists prior to a lawful search and seizure. One such exception is called a “Terry stop” named after the US Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). This is where “reasonable suspicion” comes in. Under Terry, law enforcement officials may conduct warrantless searches and seizures OF A LIMITED NATURE and DURATION based on the officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been, is being or is about to be committed. “Reasonable suspicion” is a lower legal standard than probable cause. When an officer has such reasonable suspicion, a police officer may approach and temporarily detain a person for the purpose of investigating possible criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to support an arrest. Further, if the officer has justifiable reasons to believe that the individual being temporarily detained is armed and presently dangerous, the officer may conduct a patdown search to determine whether the person has a weapon. There must be separate “reasonable suspicions” for the two parts of a Terry stop.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion requires that the law enforcement officer have specific facts — not just a hunch — that a person is or was involved in criminal behavior. For example, in a case involving possible drug trafficking, one court agreed that the following specific facts gave rise to reasonable suspicion for the police officers to detain the defendant:

  • Defendant had visible needle marks on his arms
  • Defendant admitted to heroin use in the past
  • Drug deals were common in that location
  • The police officers knew that drugs were often bartered for consumer items and goods
  • Defendant had a small Leatherman-brand multi-tool with him that was unopened and still in its packaging
  • Defendant said he found the multi-tool “under a bridge” — which the court agreed lacked credulity
  • Defendant was in a parking lot behind a van hiding him from view and
  • The police officers identified what they called the defendant’s “deer-in-the-headlights” surprise when the patrol car unexpectedly pulled into the parking lot

From the foregoing, the court agreed that the officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion that the defendant might be engaged in drug trafficking.

How might the legal doctrine of “reasonable suspicion” help your criminal defense or appeal?

If police officers did not have “reasonable suspicion” to detain an individual, then charges can be dismissed on the basis of unlawful search and seizure. As noted, there must be a separate “reasonable suspicion” for a pat down. If police officers did not have “reasonable suspicion” that the defendant had a weapon, then weapons charges can be dismissed. In addition, there are specific rules for conducting a Terry stop. For example, there must be “reasonable suspicion” to allow the police to engage in a pat-down. But the police officers must feel some sort of weapon before searching a person’s pockets. Likewise, the officers must actually conduct a patdown before searching a person’s pockets. If the rules of a Terry stop are violated, then evidence can be excluded and if the evidence is not excluded, that can be the basis for a post-conviction appeal.

Speak with a Criminal Appeals Attorney Today

For more information, contact the criminal defense team at the Federal Criminal Law Center. Our firm knows how to fully assess an individual’s case and how to identify the strongest grounds for appeal. Contact us today by calling (404) 633.3797 or by completing our quick and convenient online form. It is important to remember that there are often narrow windows of time in which to file an appeal. Contact us today.