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Is there a difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion?

Dayton, OH |
Attorney answers 3


Good question. I was always taught in law school that pulling over a vehicle was akin to a "Terry-stop" (named after the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio) but a lecturer at a seminar a few years back informed me probable cause was still needed. To reconcile the two legal positions, I would say that to pull over a vehicle for a minor traffic offense and nothing more, probable cause is needed. If it's a suspicion of more serious criminal activity, only reasonable suspicion is needed, but the stop must be brief, and only to dispel the suspicion, not an excuse for a white gloves fishing expedition search.

To answer your question, the difference between the two standards is nuances, but it is generally recognized that probable cause, the same standard required for an arrest, is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. Many of the judges I practice before don't seem to understand that probable cause, though a lesser standard than proof beyond a reasonable doubt required at trial, requires an officer to have a sufficiently strong belief to justify a cautious and prudent officer to believe that certain facts are probably true. So it is not "just" probable cause, and a hunch is insufficient. It is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion, though under either standard a mere hunch is insufficient. Under reasonable standard, though a lesser standard than probable cause, the officer must still be able to articulate specific facts about the individual before stopping him or her, or restraining the person's freedom of movement in any way, even for a second. This is why the police stops in certain crime-ridden areas of New York City that you may have heard about on the news have become so controversial and are being challenged in court.

I can't answer your question without specific facts, but suffice it to say, an officer can't just pull you over or stop you because you look funny. One tip here: darkened car windows. Darkened windows are the pet peeve of a lot of police officers and a lot of the reason many vehicles are pulled over. Although there's nothing per se illegal about window tinting as long as you can clearly see the road in all directions, you still draw a lot of police interest if you have it, and also more likely to get a ticky-tack citation for something. To me, it's not worth it.


In theory their is a difference but in most courts the differenced has been greatly eroded. The answer provided by the other attorney was great. If you are charged with a crime you should hire an attorney. Your question heading has DUI in it. There are a lot of factors to consider in OVI cases. I handle lots of criminal and DUI cases in the Dayton area. Please feel free to contact me for a free telephone consultation.

Attorney Chris Beck
Beck Law Office, L.L.C.
Beavercreek, Ohio
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The responses of Attorney Chris Beck to any questions posed on Avvo do NOT establish an Attorney-client relationship. Attorney Beck is available for private hire and consultation for a fee. Only after Attorney Beck is retained as counsel, or agrees to discuss this matter with you privately, shall he be legally deemed to be your Attorney. His responses herein are an attempt to assist persons temporarily based upon the very extremely limited amount of information provided by the questioner


You can be pulled over with reasonable suspicion. You can also be pulled over with probable cause. Generally speaking, reasonable suspicions is specific, articulable facts that criminal activity is afoot. Probable cause means that there is a fair probability that a crime is or was being committed and the person stopped committed it. Probable cause is a higher standard to meet. If this standard is met, you can be pulled over, strip searched, and charged with a crime.

Courts use this distinction too. here is an excerpt from a case I found while doing research the other day:

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. The temporary detention of a person during a traffic stop is a seizure. State v. Vass, Mahoning App. No. 01CA 4, 2002-Ohio 6887, ¶ 12, citing Delaware v. Prouse (1979), 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660. There are two types of traffic stops, with a different constitutional standard applying to each. State v. Moeller (Oct. 23, 2000), Butler App. No. CA99-07-128.

The first is the ordinary stop in which a police officer witnesses a violation of the traffic code and stops the motorist to issue a citation, a warning, or effect an arrest. For such a traffic stop, there must be “probable cause.” Id. “Probable cause” is “a reasonable ground for belief of guilt.” State v. Moore (2000), 90 Ohio St.3d 47, 49, 734 N.E.2d 804. In an ordinary traffic stop, probable cause is provided when an officer witnesses a traffic violation. State v. Moeller, supra.

The second variety of a traffic stop is an investigatory stop. An investigatory stop is the motorized equivalent of a “Terry” stop, Id.; see Terry v. Ohio (1968), 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, and requires the Terry standard to be constitutionally acceptable: “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that an offense has been or is being committed. Delaware v. Prouse, supra, at 673.

Paragraphs 10, 11, and 12 from State v. Downs, 2004-Ohio-3003

Neil Scott Rubin

Neil Scott Rubin


This is a great answer. It took much time to compose. Too bad Attorney Mayo did not teach me in law school.