Reasonable suspicion is the lowest burden of proof in our legal system. Reasonable suspicion is something more than a hunch or inchoate belief. However, it is not much more. Reasonable suspicion is the standard by which courts generally judge the legality of a traffic stop.
In order to legally stop a car, a police officer must at least have reasonable suspicion. Most times a police officer will have more: for instance, actual proof of a crime or infraction, such as speeding.
However, in certain instances, police officers lack any proof of a traffic violation, and they simply rely upon reasonable suspicion.
Since these issues are fact intensive, it’s hard to draw out a broad principle of law. However, a recent June 2011 opinion by the North Carolina Court of Appeals shows that a lack of reasonable suspicion – reasonable articulable suspicion – may result in the suppression of most or even all evidence located thereafter.
In State v. Burke the officer pulled over a car after seeing a 30-day temporary tag on the car. After pulling over the car solely because he believed the 30-day-tag might be fictitious, he asked the driver to produce a license and registration. When the driver opened his glove box, the officer spotted a gun. The officer charged the driver with carrying a concealed weapon. After charging the person with carrying the concealed weapon, the officer then asked the driver whether there was anything else in the car. The driver indicated that there was cocaine and MDMA (Ecstasy) in the car.
The driver was charged with felony possession of controlled substances, in addition to the concealed weapon charge.
The driver contended at a suppression hearing that his rights had been violated because the stop was unlawful in that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion. The officer admitted during the suppression hearing that he stopped the car because the tag had a “low” number on it although the officer could not say what the proper number would have been. The officer said that was the sole reason for the stop. The trial court rejected the Defense motion, and the Defendant pled guilty and received a 4 to 6 month sentence, suspended for 18 months of probation.
The Court of Appeals held that the officer had erred. The Court said that because the officer was uncertain about what a proper range of numbers would be, and that the officer’s reason for the stop was essentially a hunch, that it didn’t reach the level of reasonable suspicion. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, and overturned the conviction.