What is Reasonable Suspicion and When Can an Officer Search You?

Print Friendly

Officer has reasonable suspicion to searchThe U.S. Constitution (and Article II, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution) guarantees that people are free from unreasonable searches but what does that mean?

Essentially, it means that the police can only conduct a search if a normal person would think that the search is reasonable (if a normal person does not think that the search is reasonable then the officer cannot conduct a search and if he does, what he finds will be thrown out by the judge).  So when an officer says that he has reasonable suspicion, what he means is that he has seen enough things to think that a crime has occurred or is about to occur and that he can now detain you and search you.

When an officer says he has reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has occurred, he generally does not know that a crime has occurred and does not have enough information to arrest you.  He only has enough information to detain you to try to get more information about whether a crime has occurred.  As a result, the moments after a detention are crucial in determining whether the officer will arrest you or not and it will help your case immensely if there was not reasonable suspicion because the judge will generally throw out anything that the officer finds if there was not reasonable suspicion (and your case will probably get dismissed).

According to the Supreme Court of the United States, there is “no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search [or seize] against the invasion which the search [or seizure] entails.” And in justifying the particular intrusion the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion. The scheme of the Fourth Amendment becomes meaningful only when it is assured that at some point the conduct of those charged with enforcing the laws can be subjected to the more detached, neutral scrutiny of a judge who must evaluate the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure in light of the particular circumstances. And in making that assessment it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard: would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or the search “warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief” that the action taken was appropriate? Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result this Court has consistently refused to sanction.

So with this standard in mind, there are three things the judge will consider when deciding whether an officer in Colorado says that he has “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a search.

  1. The judge will balance the governments interest against yours.
  2. The police officer must be able to bring up reasonable and articulable facts that warrant the intrusion from reasonable inferences.
  3. The assessment that the officer made must be objectively reasonable (i.e. a normal person would also find that the officer’s assessment was reasonable.)

If any one of these three factors is not present, then there is not reasonable suspicion.  If all of these three factors are present, then there is reasonable suspicion.  It is important to note that the things that are objectively reasonable vary from State to State so something that is reasonable in New Mexico might not be reasonable in Colorado.  For example, in Colorado under Article II, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution, once a dog sniffs luggage and does not bark, there is no longer reasonable suspicion.  In New Mexico, if a dog sniffs luggage and does not bark, there still may be reasonable suspicion, if there are other strong supporting facts.

The information in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as the creation of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney.

Series NavigationFive Examples of Situations Where a Police Officer Can and Cannot Stop You >>

Written by

Nathaniel has worked in criminal law on both sides of the aisle spending time working for the prosecution as well as the defense. Most recently Nathaniel has represented individuals in violent felonies and drug cases. Prior to this work, Nathaniel handled DWIs, Domestic Violence Cases, Property Crimes, and White Collar Crimes. On the prosecutorial side, Nathaniel has most notably worked in Bosnia helping to prosecute individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Bosnian War from 1993-1995. In particular, Nathaniel helped in the prosecution of military leaders who arranged for the organized murders and rapes of innocent civilians in various towns in Bosnia. Nathaniel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Northwestern University, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Google Profile: Nathaniel Baca