REASONABLE SUSPICION: The Warrantless Standard of Probable Cause

For officers, sometimes a routine traffic stop can turn into an arrest. This is what happens in many instances across the country. In many cases, an individual may be pulled over for a routine traffic violation and go to jail for possession of illegal substances or weapons. A traffic violation then turns into search and seizure or stop and frisk. The question here is, how does this happen? Individuals have rights granted to them by the US Constitution. This includes rights to privacy including search and seizures. These individuals are searched and seized by law enforcement without a warrant. While some feel this is unjust, others feel it is necessary to maintain safety and security of greater society. Officers have the right to stop and frisk without warrant through a term known as Reasonable Suspicion. By the standards Probable Cause indicated by law, officers are allowed to search and seize individuals based on the concept of Reasonable Suspicion.

American law allows warrantless searches through a policy recognized in the 4th Amendment known as Probable Cause. “The 4th Amendment provides that ‘no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause’”, (Rutledge, 2011). Probable Cause is an important standard. It allows law enforcement to search individuals and their property without a warrant from the judge or the court. An example of this can be observed in the 2003 case, Ford v State of Texas. In this case, Ford was pulled over for a traffic violation. However, the end result was an arrest for possession of a controlled substance. Reasonable suspicion is what allowed the officer to lawfully conduct a search and seizure during a routine traffic stop. Reasonable suspicion then becomes justification for search and seizer.  Search and seizure is a term used to describe a law enforcement officer seizing an individual either by pulling them over or questioning a pedestrian, to then search the individual for items related to criminal activity. There are different requirements that justify a lawful search and seizure. These include search warrants, consent searches, and warrantless searches, (“”, 2012). There are three forms of warrantless searches that are used. Justification for warrantless searches is reasonable suspicion, probable cause and self-incrimination, (“”, 2012).

“The term reasonable suspicion is not constitutional derivation but was fashioned by the court to describe a level of suspicion lower than probable cause”, (Rutledge, 2011). In the case of Ford vs. Texas, Ford was pulled over by law enforcement for following too closely. That’s when, “Ford lowered his passenger side window, Peavy noticed a strong odor of marijuana”, (Ford v State, 2005). Picking up this smell, the officer asked Ford if he could search the car and found “a bottle containing codeine, another bottle containing codeine mixed with soda [and] … 55 grams of marijuana in the car’s console” (Ford v State, 2005). Ford was then charged with felony possession and controlled substance. Reasonable Suspicion by the officer is what led to Ford’s arrest. The officer had “reasonable suspicion”, that Mr. Ford was in possession of marijuana due to the odor that came from the vehicle. As a result of the smell, the officer had the right to search Mr. Ford and his property based on the concept of reasonable suspicion. Marijuana is an illegal substance and to carry prescription drugs such as codeine, either in access or without a prescription is also illegal. In this case, “the reasonable suspicion required for the initial detention” and gave the officer justification to search the vehicle, (Ford v State, 2005). defines reasonable suspicion as, “a term used to describe if a person has been or will be involved in a crime based on specific facts and circumstances”, (2012). In the case of Ford v State, the officer said he pulled up behind Ford and saw that he was following too closely so he pulled him over. This is an important concept of reasonable suspicion. The officer had justification to pull over Mr. Ford. It is the same in other cases of reasonable suspicion. The individual must conduct himself in a manner to draw reasonable suspicion to an officer. While following too closely encouraged the officer to pull over Mr. Ford, the smell of marijuana presented reasonable suspicion which caused a search and seizure. The courts recognized this as well. “There are common sense, non-technical concepts that deal with the factual and practical considerations of everyday life… as such the standards are not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set or rules”, (Rutledge, 2011).

As long an officer has reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in illegal activity, the officer has the right to seize the individual and search their property. “Reasonable suspicion exists if the officer has specific articulable facts, that when combined with rational inferences from these facts would lead him to reasonably conclude that a particular person actually is, has been, or soon will be engaged in criminal activity”. However, reasonable suspicion is a term that can be used loosely. In addition it is a term that has no clear definition. For an officer or the court of law to justify reasonable suspicion, there is not specific requirement of information. The information can be loose, low quality, and unreliable. Reasonable suspicion also encourages racial profiling and bias behavior on the part of law enforcement. Harris wrote a highly cited article in 1994 called Factors for Reasonable Suspicion: When Black and Poor Means Stopped and Frisked. In it, Harris states that, “being stopped for nothing – or almost nothing- has become an all too common experience for some Americans since 1968 when the United States Supreme Court decided Terry v Ohio.” The Terry v Ohio case granted police officers the right to search a person and their possessions without warrant or probable cause. Those in law call this the, Terry Standard or a Terry Stop. Over the case of reasonable suspicion, Harris provided two factors: “to presume the correctness of the trail courts findings of fact subject to clear error or a showing that the factual findings are not credible or are not supported by substantial evidence”. Therefore reasonable suspicion has a large gray area. It is up to law enforcement and the courts to practice reasonable suspicion. Yet, reasonable suspicion is based on little evidence and general feelings. This leaves the meaning, application, and concept of reasonable suspicion to the courts. It also allows room for bias conduct and stereotypes. Harris goes on to explain that, “these cases gradually require less and less evidence for a stop and frisk”.

Thomas III argues that, “the loose language that has evolved as a Terry Standard –reasonable suspicion—and he believes that prosecutors can drive a truck through that language and rule in favor of the prosecution on very thin evidence”. This is true when reviewing the Ford v State case. The officer stated that he smelled marijuana therefore the officer was justified to search Mr. Ford and his property. This testimony was justification enough. Law enforcement is not required to have probable cause nor supporting evidence to justify a search and seizure based on reasonable suspicion. In addition, there does not have to be a specific amount of facts or quality of facts for reasonable suspicion. Consequently, the language for reasonable suspicion has no clear cut definition, because it is a gray area. says that, “reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch but does not require as much evidence as probable cause”.

Author W. Stuntz gave a better understanding of search and seizure and reasonable suspicion known as the Terry Standard, and what that means for citizens and law enforcement officers.

  1. Police have “seized” someone if a reasonable person in the suspects position would not feel free to leave
  2. Police can briefly seize and detain suspects based on reasonable suspicion of past or future crime
  3. The Terry Standard applies to stops of vehicles as well as pedestrians.

Stuntz provides a more thorough explanation of reasonable suspicion. An individual can be searched based on the suspicion that they are, or will, participate in criminal activity. However, the term continues to be defined loosely. It does not indicate the amount of evidence or what kind of evidence can be used to conclude reasonable suspicion. In many cases, there does not have to be any “evidence” at all. Just being pulled over can cause reasonable suspicion. If an individual is caught speeding in their vehicle or running out of a store, this behavior can cause reasonable suspicion. For some, this behavior provides reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken pace. An officer can use this to conduct a search and seizer of individuals and their property. In this manner, officers can take advantage of the concepts of reasonable suspicion. It gives light to a gray area and a place to question its justification. “Reasonable suspicion is a strong suspicion, even based on less information of a less-reliable nature that a person is involved in criminal activity or maybe armed and dangerous”, (Rutledge, 2011).

Either way, everyone has fundamental rights. However, the Supreme Court found that civilians can afford to give up some fundamental rights if it means safer streets. “Defining reasonable suspicion in terms of familiar activities, it is the level of information and suspicion you need when you make a vehicle stop or a pedestrian stop, or pat down someone who might be armed, or search a vehicle”, (Rutledge, 2011). Individuals want safer streets and equal rights. However, there are serious questions on weather reasonable suspicion can meet both of these objectives. Police act as law enforcement and work to keep the community safe from crime. Thus, they must be able to exercise their power and authority by searching and seizing individuals with reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion has helped law enforcement keep drugs out of the community and apprehend suspects. All the while, individuals are losing their rights to privacy and searches and seizers based on reasonable suspicion. Relationships require a compromise and give and take. Through standards such as reasonable suspicion, citizens are forced to limit their rights to search and seizer. However for many, this is a compromise they are willing to take to maintain safety and security of greater society.






(2005). Ford v state of texas. Retrieved from Criminal Court website: and seizure&hl=en&as_sdt=2,11&as_ylo=2002

Harris, David A. (1994) “Factors for Reasonable Suspicion: When Black and Poor Means Stopped and Frisked,” Indiana Law Journal: Vol. 69: Iss. 3, Article 1. Available at:

Rutledge, D. (2011, June 07). Probable cause and reasonable suspicion. Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine, Retrieved from

Stuntz, William J. (2012) “Terry’s Impossibility,” St. John’s Law Review: Vol. 72: Iss. 3, Article 20. Available at:

Thomas, George C. III (2012) “Terry v. Ohio in the Trenches: A Glimpse at How Courts Apply “Reasonable Suspicion”,” St. John’s Law Review: Vol. 72: Iss. 3, Article 12. Available at:

Reasonable suspicion. (2012, April 20). Retrieved from


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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