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Doesn't a police officer need probable cause to stop my vehicle

If you are like others here in Orlando, you may believe that police need "probable cause" to initiate a traffic stop. The truth is that they don't.

Police only need "reasonable suspicion" to pull you over. At this point, you may be asking yourself, "What's the difference?" If so, read on because it's an important distinction.

How do probable cause and reasonable suspicion differ?

Police only need to responsibly suspect you of committing a crime or violating a traffic law in order to pull you over. An officer can temporarily detain you based on that suspicion and conduct a limited investigation to determine whether a crime may have occurred.

In order to make an arrest, the officer must meet the higher burden of establishing probable cause. This requires some evidence that you probably committed a crime. For instance, if an officer suspects you of driving under the influence, he or she uses field sobriety tests, a portable breath test and other observations to establish probable cause to arrest you on suspicion of DUI.

What actions or behaviors fall under reasonable suspicion?

As an officer observes your vehicle, he or she looks for actions or behaviors such as the following in order to initiate a traffic stop:

  • Did you stop in the middle of the road without an obvious reason?
  • Did your vehicle straddle or go over the centerline?
  • Did you brake frequently for no apparent reason?
  • Did you make an illegal turn?
  • Did you drive erratically or extremely slowly?
  • Did your vehicle drift between lanes?
  • Did you come close to crashing into vehicles or other objects on the side of the road?

Of course, these aren't the only behaviors that could lead to a traffic stop. An officer could claim to observe you speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign or a variety of other traffic violations. Once the officer has pulled you over, he or she could then begin attempting to develop probable cause for an arrest if he or she suspects you of drunk driving.

You may think your only defense options include challenging results of breath tests and field sobriety tests, among other things related to the arrest. If so, you miss an important part of the inquiry into the charges you face. Questioning the traffic stop itself could reveal that the officer failed to have reasonable suspicion to stop you in the first place. If that is the case, it could significantly affect the outcome of your case.

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