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January 15, 2020
Crime took a vacation yesterday. This is the picture we will use when that happens, which isn’t often. We were still busy. Most of our officers were in a leadership training, so that left 2 or three on each shift to cover the 35 calls for service that occurred throughout the day and night. Let’s not waste the blotter space, though. How about we talk about the different standards of proof officers use in their everyday work.
For example, what is the standard of proof an officer needs to make a traffic stop or detain a person on the street? Many of you may be thinking, "Ooh, ooh! I know! I know! Probable Cause!" You would be wrong. What!? You thought that was the basic standard for all contacts, didn’t you? Nope. "Probable Cause" is the standard for arrests, search warrants, arrest warrants and to search vehicles without a search warrant. "Probable Cause" is a set of facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a crime is/has been committed and that a certain person did it or proves contraband is in a certain place.
It’s an important standard, but not actually the one most used on a day to day basis. So, what’s used more than Probable Cause you ask? "Reasonable Suspicion." Huh? What does that mean? It’s very similar to Probable Cause, but it is only an articulable set of facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable officer to "suspect" a crime is being committed. It’s more than a hunch or gut feeling, though. An officer has to be able to articulate why they did what they did in court. If you were to put percentages to it, Probable Cause would be anything greater than 50%, where Reasonable Suspicion might be only 15%.
Why do we have these standards? These are your protections under the 4th amendment, protecting you from unreasonable search and seizure. The key word there is, "unreasonable," suggesting there are times when it is reasonable to search and detain persons or property. That is where Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause come in. They give officers guidelines to do their jobs without violation your constitutionally protected rights. So, when we are making a traffic stop, we are using Reasonable Suspicion. When we make an arrest, it’s based on Probable Cause as required by the 4th amendment.
This is a Reader’s Digest, off-the-cuff explanation of these two concepts but there are literally volumes written on the subject. But wait, isn’t there another standard? What about, "Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?" That’s a standard of proof in the court room to find someone guilty in a criminal case. If you were going to put a percentage to it, we’d give it a 85-95%. This standard of proof, while not used every day, has a profound effect on a police officer’s every day work. What good is it for us to make an arrest that meets the Probable Cause standard if it isn’t going to meet the Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt standard in court? Generally, not much, so we strive to provide prosecutors with the best cases possible for the benefit of the victims involved and our community.
Hope that clears up any questions. Let us know if you have any others. We are happy to answer them.