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What’s Reasonable Suspicion in North Carolina?

By Randall & Stump excels in criminal defense, serving clients in Charlotte, NC & other surrounding cities.
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Randall & Stump, PLLC i

Category Criminal Defense, Traffic
Sunday, December 12, 2021

Person using lock pick to open locked door

Law enforcement needs to jump through a few hoops to investigate, detain, and arrest someone properly. In fact, criminal charges should be dismissed if they try to shortcut someone’s rights by ignoring their legal protections.

Investigations into possible criminal behavior follow the same course: the police need to have reasonable suspicion. And there are standards to need to be met.

Constitutional Law Requires a Legitimate Basis to Stop You

Many protections come from the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article I, Section 20 of the state constitution. The Fourth Amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The US Supreme Court interpreted this as requiring law enforcement to have reasonable, articulable suspicion a crime is being committed or was before someone can be temporarily detained.

This can mean a person being physically stopped or police pulling a car over in traffic.

Whether there’s a reasonable, articulable suspicion depends on the facts. It must be based “on specific and articulable facts, as well as the rational inferences from those facts, as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, cautious officer, guided by his experience and training,” according to North Carolina’s Court of Appeals.

What Causes Reasonable Suspicion?

A person found with burglary tools in an area where burglaries are reported may justify reasonable suspicion. If an officer sees a car weave in and out of traffic lanes, speed up then slow down, and disregard stop signs, there would be reasonable suspicion the driver is impaired.

Not Everything Counts As Reasonable Suspicion

One example of not having reasonable suspicion is if an officer detains someone based on a generalized suspicion the defendant committed a crime because of the time and place the officer encountered the suspect and the fact he wasn’t familiar with the area.

Essentially, the officer can’t just have a gut feeling or hunch someone committed a crime to justify stopping them.

An Arrest Requires Probable Cause

The next step is placing someone under arrest when probable cause is needed. Arresting someone is a far greater intrusion into a person’s freedom and liberty, so the legal standard is higher.

State statute NCGS § 15A-401(b)(1) states in part, “(a)n officer may arrest without a warrant any person who the officer has probable cause to believe has committed a criminal offense… in the officer’s presence.”

Probable cause in North Carolina means:

  • Facts and circumstances within an officer’s knowledge
  • Based on reasonably trustworthy information
  • Which are sufficient to justify a prudent man in believing
  • That the suspect had or was committing an offense

The US Supreme Court has stated probable cause doesn’t require that the belief be correct or more likely true than false. There just needs to be a practical, nontechnical probability incriminating evidence is involved. A likelihood of illegal activity is enough.

Defenses Against a Conviction

Whether the issue is an illegal stop because of the lack of reasonable suspicion or an improper arrest because there’s no probable cause, both standards are fact-based. They involve what the officer knew, when, and how.

Given the evidence, if there are grounds to argue there couldn’t have been reasonable suspicion or probable cause, your attorney may present their findings to the prosecutor and ask the charges be withdrawn.

If they don’t, your lawyer can pursue a dismissal or go to trial and highlight that the prosecutor can’t meet their burden of proof.

Don’t Go It Alone: Get a Free Consult

If you’re facing charges based on an improper stop or arrest, the lawyers at Randall & Stump know how to investigate and build your defense. These are complicated areas of law to articulate, and if you represent yourself, you could be hurting your case more than you’re helping.

Call Randall & Stump today for a free consultation.