Photo of Richard Ansara - Attorney at Law
Call 24/7 at (954) 761-4011
Richard Ansara Attorney at Law

What is Reasonable Suspicion in a Florida Criminal Case?

Reasonable suspicion is what is required by law enforcement officers in Florida to temporarily detain a person for purposes of determining whether a crime has been committed. It arises most often in the context of traffic stops or when police make contact after receiving a tip (anonymous or otherwise) about a crime or potential crime. Reasonable suspicion must be determined by the totality of both facts and circumstances.

People often confuse reasonable suspicion with probable cause. They are interrelated, but they aren’t the same thing. 

As our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers can explain, reasonable suspicion - sometimes formally referred to as “reasonable articulable suspicion” - is the standard by which a person who is both reasonable and objective would suspect another of committing or intending to commit a crime. It must rely on known and specific information. Although the proof burden for reasonable suspicion is fairly low, it must go beyond a mere gut feeling or hunch. For a law enforcement officer to successfully assert reasonable suspicion, they must be able to articulate clear, common-sense facts that led to their suspicion. 

Even then, reasonable suspicion alone isn’t enough to initiate an involuntary search of one’s car, home, or person. The authority granted to an officer with reasonable suspicion is intentionally limited in scope. 

It’s not unless or until they develop probable cause that they are lawfully allowed to conduct involuntary searches, seizures, or arrests. Even then, such actions must be within the confines of state and federal constitutional rights. 

Probable cause is a higher standard of proof than reasonable suspicion. It is commonly understood to mean that the facts and circumstances known to law enforcement would lead a prudent person to believe a particular person has committed or is committing a crime. With probable cause, the assertion is there’s good reason to believe a crime did occur. Conversely, reasonable suspicion is the well-founded notion that a crime might have occurred.

To better illustrate the differing proof burden levels, let’s say you have an oven with a temperature dial that goes 0-100 degrees. The higher the temperature, the more convinced a reasonable person would be of guilt (or liability, in civil cases). Reasonable suspicion - the basis for briefly detaining a person and investigating whether a crime might have occurred - would probably be somewhere around 30-40 degrees. Probable cause - needed to conduct non-voluntary searches and initiate arrests - is closer to around 40-50 degrees. In civil cases, claimants must convince the fact finder (judge or jury) by either a standard of a “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence.” These would be somewhere between 55 and 75 degrees, respectively. Lastly, to secure a criminal conviction, prosecutors must prove the defendant’s guilt by a standard that is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the highest proof burden, and would put that oven dial somewhere around 98-99 degrees. 

These aren’t exact scales, of course, but it provides a good visual of the varying levels. 

So reasonable suspicion is low on the proof scale - but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As an experienced Fort Lauderdale defense attorney can explain, a police stop or police encounter that was initiated without probable cause could cause the entire case to fall apart. This is why your lawyer will be interested in a detailed description of everything that led up to the stop/encounter. 

When Does the Question of Reasonable Suspicion Arise?

Reasonable suspicion arises in the context of criminal and traffic cases. Not all arrests start with reasonable suspicion, but it’s what is required for an officer to perform an investigatory stop. This can include pulling someone over or stopping them on foot, initiating a conversation, and potentially patting them down or frisking them for weapons. 

The most common basis cited for reasonable suspicion is observation of a traffic offense. Not all traffic offenses are criminal, but they can still be the basis for a traffic stop. An officer who observes a tail light out on a vehicle probably has reasonable suspicion. Once the stop is initiated, the officer may note the driver smells like alcohol and has glassy eyes and slurred voice. This might be the basis for probable cause to initiate a search, demand the driver undergo a breathalyzer, and make an arrest. But if the original basis for the stop - that tail light - is proven untrue, any other evidence that followed could be inadmissible. 

One example of this was the Florida 4th District Court of Appeal’s 2001 decision in Slydell v. State. In that case, a man was arrested after officers “had a hunch” that he was trespassing and didn’t belong in a certain apartment complex. When they attempted to stop and question him, he ran - an action for which he was later charged with resisting arrest without violence. Officers ultimately caught him, they searched him and found crack cocaine, leading to drug charges as well. He was convicted for drug possession, and didn’t appeal those charges (though arguably, he could have). However, he did appeal the conviction for resisting arrest. He asserted - and the 4th DCA, as well as Florida’s Attorney General agreed - that an officer’s “bare suspicion” of trespassing is not sufficient to initiate an investigatory stop and detention. 

This requirement for reasonable suspicion is true in this case even though the property owner had an agreement with police that allowed officers to stop individuals that officers didn’t recognize as residents. The court concluded, “The property owner’s grant of authority to police officers to investigate trespassing does not confer any greater authority to law enforcement during police-citizen contact than do our Constitution and laws.” 

What About Stop-and-Frisk?

Stop-and-frisk statues - which vary from state-to-state - is not an exception to reasonable suspicion. It can be a narrow exception to the requirement for probable cause, but reasonable suspicion is still required. 

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 landmark case of Terry v. Ohio), an officer can stop a suspect on the street and frisk that person without probable cause to arrest. However, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime AND a reasonable belief the person may be armed and presently dangerous. 

Florida’s Stop & Frisk Law, F.S. 901.151, allows law enforcement who encounters someone they reasonably believe has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime or violation of local ordinances to temporarily detain the person and determine: 

  • Their identity.
  • The circumstances surrounding their presence at that location that led the officer to think the person was involved in criminal activity. 

Detention under stop-and-frisk can’t last longer than reasonably necessary to determine this information and this information alone. (Note: If you are stopped by police, you are not required to answer questions, consent to a search, or provide them with information beyond your identity.) 

If the officer who is temporarily detaining a person has reasonable cause to believe that individual is armed with a dangerous weapon, they can search the person solely for the purpose of finding or ruling out the presence of the suspected weapon. You can assert that you do not consent to this search to make it clear that you aren’t submitting voluntarily, but resisting is not a good idea.

Stop-and-frisk laws have gained a great deal of scrutiny in recent years - not just in Florida, but throughout the country - for concern that they have been unevenly applied, particularly toward minorities. They still stand, but they aren’t a blanket exception - and they still require reasonable suspicion. 

That brings us to challenges of reasonable suspicion based on anonymous tips. 

This has been a contentious issue in the courts - and specifically in Florida with the 2000 Florida Supreme Court ruling in Florida v. J.L. In that case, officers in Miami got an anonymous tip that a young, Black man standing near a certain bus stop, wearing a plaid shirt, was armed with a concealed gun. Police went to the stop and spotted a young, Black male wearing a plaid shirt. They did not see a gun. The youth didn’t do anything unusual or behave suspiciously. The only thing officers had to go on was that anonymous tip. One of the officers frisked the youth (who turned out to be 16). They found a gun, and arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon without a license and possessing a firearm while under the age of 18. The court granted his defense lawyer’s motion to suppress the gun as evidence gleaned from an unlawful search - because that anonymous tip wasn’t enough to form a reasonable suspicion. The appellate court reversed, but then the Florida Supreme Court quashed that reversal.

The Florida Supreme Court held that even if the tip accurately described the visible attributes of the individual, there was no reliable assertion of illegality. The caller had neither explained how he knew about the gun nor supplied any basis for believing he had inside information about the suspect/defendant. The Court also declined to adopt a firearm exception to this standard. 

The U.S. Supreme Court also affirmed the trial court’s suppression of the gun evidence because they did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop-and-frisk search. 

If you’ve been arrested in Florida, our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers will carefully assess whether a challenge on the basis of lacking reasonable suspicion is appropriate.

Schedule a free initial consultation with The Ansara Law Firm by calling (954) 761-4011.

Client Reviews
“Just wanted to say what a professional law firm "The Ansara Law Firm" was in handling my case and can't thank Richard enough for keeping me calm and letting me know the status of my case. You really do care about your clients and made me feel at ease during my legal issues!” Andy Austin
"Richard was thorough, patient and went above and beyond to make a hard time for my family a little more bearable. I pray we never need a criminal defense attorney again, but if we do, there is NO doubt who we're going to!" Amy
"I had a dui case and Mr. Ansara made it go as smooth as possible. He was able to time everything so I could get a new company up and running without the dui effecting my ability to drive." Sean
"I have been a client of Richard Ansara for several years now, I am pleased with his outcomes on all my cases, patience, professionalism and courteousness when I come into his office. I would definitely recommend Ansara's Law Firm to friends and family for any of their future legal needs." Emily Gutierrez