Reasonable suspicion is a legal concept that many people know little about. Most Virginia residents are more familiar with a probable cause because it is necessary when law enforcement officers make an arrest. Reasonable suspicion is actually part of a potential criminal situation when an officer has reason to investigate due to something they observed, and it is what actually prompts officers to request personal authorization to search personal property when questioning a suspect.
Searching a vehicle
The most common application of reasonable suspicion usually occurs during a traffic stop. Using the “plain sight” rule, officers who notice contraband inside a vehicle or observe passengers potentially hiding something will often ask to search the vehicle without a warrant. Personal authorization means they no longer need the warrant to search. If a suspect refuses authorization, the officer then needs “reasonable suspicion” to request that a judge issue a search warrant. Warrants requests must be done by an affidavit stating the suspicious reasoning per the plain sight rule, and failure to do so can be the basis for a criminal defense strategy.
Searches of individuals
Searching an individual can be different when reasonable suspicion is weak. However, a recent federal court ruling has reinforced the concept that officers have wide discretion when it comes to reasonable suspicion. In the recent case, a bicyclist’s backpack was searched for a handgun based on the location at the time of the stop, which was a high crime neighborhood. The criminal defense attorneys argued that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to search, but the court held otherwise because the duty to prove reasonable suspicion is much lower than probable cause.
This ruling will assuredly empower police officers in the future. However, there is at least a standard for Virginia criminal defense attorneys to follow in representing clients with respect to officer authority to search without a warrant.