Reasonable suspicion is the legal standard by which a police officer has the right to briefly detain a suspect for investigatory purposes and frisk the outside of their clothing for weapons, but not drugs. While many factors contribute to a police officer’s level of authority in a given situation, the reasonable suspicion standard requires facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has, is, or will commit a crime.
While reasonable suspicion does not require hard evidence, it does require more than a hunch. A combination of particular facts, even if each is individually insignificant, can form the basis of reasonable suspicion. For example, police may have reasonable suspicion to detain someone who fits a description of a criminal suspect, a suspect who drops a suspicious object after seeing police, or a suspect in a high crime area who runs after seeing police.
What reasonable suspicion means to you
Because reasonable suspicion gives officers legal authority to detain you, the absence of reasonable suspicion does not require officers to tell you that you’re free to leave. They will often use your uncertainty as an opportunity to ask probing questions even if the conversation is legally “voluntary”.
In such situations, it’s up to you to determine if you’re being detained or are free to go. Before answering an officer’s questions, you may courteously ask “Officer, am I free to go?” If you’re free to go, then go. If the officer’s answer is unclear or he asks additional questions, you may persist by repeating “Officer, am I free to go?”
Keep in mind that refusing to answer an officers questions does not create reasonable suspicion. But acting nervous and answering questions inconsistently can create reasonable suspicion. Also, you have the 4th Amendment right to refuse search requests, and your refusal does not create reasonable suspicion.
If you are not free to go, you are being detained. The officer might have some reason to suspect you of a crime, and you may be arrested. In such a situation, your magic words are “I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.” These magic words are like a legal condom. Because anything you say can and will be used against you in court, they’re your best protection if you’re under arrest.