DWI: Reasonable suspicion is different than probable cause

Every day, for a variety of reasons, numerous motorists in North Carolina end up getting pulled over by law enforcement officers. Some are let go with warnings, others are issued citations, and some end up behind bars. Stopping a motorist is not something police can just do whenever they want. They must have reasonable suspicion. What does that mean and how is it different than probable cause?

To temporarily detain a motorist and investigate a possible crime, law enforcement officers must have a plausible reason to believe that the individual they are pulling over has committed a crime. There are several activities, namely traffic violations, that provide police reasonable suspicion. A few of them include:

  • Performing an illegal turn
  • Erratic driving
  • Driving too slow
  • Reckless driving
  • Failure to remain in one’s lane

Probable cause comes after reasonable suspicion, as reasonable suspicion gives the officer the right to investigate, while probable cause is necessary to make an arrest. An officer has probable cause if, while briefly detaining a motorist, he or she gathers enough evidence to support his or her suspicion that a crime has been committed. For example, if an officer suspects a person of driving while impaired and he or she witnesses this person commit a traffic violation, a routine traffic stop may be initiated. If during the investigation the suspect exhibits signs of intoxication, the officer may ask the individual to participate in field sobriety and/or chemical testing. If the driver refuses or fails the tests, this gives the officer probable cause to make an arrest.

Motorists in North Carolina who have been arrested for DWI, and who feel that the officers who pulled them over lacked reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause, can try to dispute the charges against them in criminal court. This can be an intimidating thing to carry out, but thankfully, it is not something one has to do alone. With the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, it may be possible to challenge evidence which may bring information to light that could prove beneficial to one’s case.

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