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Reasonable Suspicion in a Routine Traffic Stop

Maybe you have been pulled over by the police recently and would like to know your chances of getting the ticket dismissed. Perhaps you were charged with serious moving violations, such as excessive speeding or reckless driving. In Virginia, these can be very serious offenses that carry harsh penalties. No matter what the infraction, you deserve the best legal representation you can get. After all, your license is often required for your livelihood. Without it, finding employment can be difficult, maintaining a job can be almost impossible, and your everyday life will be impacted for years to come.

One of the most commonly misunderstood theories in criminal law is reasonable suspicion. Remember that being charged with an infraction does not equal guilt. You have a right to fight the citation in court and be represented by an experienced Virginia traffic defense lawyer. Whether it is a simple moving violation or a DUI, an officer’s failure to understand reasonable suspicion might just be your ticket to a dismissal.

What is reasonable suspicion?

The public and police alike often misunderstand this term. In short, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a law has been broken, is being broken, or is about to be broken in order to make a stop. Courts have interpreted this broadly to mean that the officer needs a reason to stop you, whether on foot or in your car.

Defining reasonable suspicion

The landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio set forth the standard by explaining that it requires more than a mere “hunch.” It requires that the stop be based on “specific and articulable facts.” These facts, when taken together with the officer’s “rational inferences,” must lead to a suspicion “associated with the specific individual” in question.

Using reasonable suspicion to your advantage

Most police officers are not prepared to understand the nuances of reasonable suspicion. They are taught to simply make a decision based on their experience and observations. In other words, if it looks like a crime is being or was committed, make the stop. It is up to the prosecutor to make the charges stick, so to speak. A skilled attorney can often poke holes in the officer’s story and demonstrate that the officer had little more than a hunch.

Example 1

A driver pulls out of a parking lot, pulls into a designated median turn lane then completes a left turn. An officer has made 20 illegal u-turn stops at this location that day alone, so when he spots the rear tail lights of the vehicle turning left from the median, he assumes the car has made an illegal u-turn, rather than a valid left turn from the parking lot across the street. While the officer may firmly believe he witnessed the u-turn, his suspicion is little more than a hunch, based on what other drivers have done. It is not reasonable to “assume” this driver did the same thing.

Not the same as probable cause

Beware, however, that probable cause is not the same as reasonable suspicion. These legal terms of art are two slightly different concepts. Reasonable suspicion is needed to stop you, but probable cause is needed to actually make an arrest or charge a person with a violation. Probable cause is a higher standard that requires more than just a suspicion, but rather, it requires the officer to have an informed belief that the crime is being, has been, or is about to be committed.

If you are stopped and charged with a traffic violation or other criminal offense in Leesburg or Loudoun county, do not pay your fines until you have spoken with one of the aggressive and knowledgeable Leesburg attorneys at Simms Showers, LLP. Let us assist you with your case.

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