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Reasonable Suspicion to Conduct a Traffic Stop in Massachusetts


Encounters with law enforcement, no matter how benign, can be a nerve-wracking affair for individuals. The mere fact that law enforcement could cite an individual with a crime is enough for that individual to be nervous when speaking to law enforcement, and this nervousness exists even in spite of protections afforded to them by the rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution. As such, if an individual is charged with a crime, an experienced criminal defense attorney should be retained to ensure that law enforcement, themselves, have not committed the crime of violating a person’s constitutional protections. Recently, two individuals in Pittsfield had drug trafficking charges against them dropped because law enforcement did not have reasonable suspicion to search their vehicle after a traffic stop. A discussion of the legal concept of reasonable suspicion, and examples of reasonable suspicion to justify a search without a warrant, will follow below.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, in which the Court held that law enforcement is allowed to stop and briefly detain an individual if, based upon the law enforcement officer’s training and experience, there is reason to believe that the individual is engaging in criminal activity. The officer is thus given the opportunity to freeze the action by stepping in to investigate.

When determining whether a law enforcement officer had reasonable suspicion to so investigate, a comparison will be made to what a reasonable law enforcement officer would do in the same situation. In all cases, reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch, feeling, or guess that an individual is committing or has committed a crime. Rather, reasonable suspicion requires law enforcement to have an unbiased belief, based on specific facts and/or circumstances, that a violation of law is in progress or has occurred. Further, these specific facts and/or circumstances must be articulable; that is, capable of being clearly expressed.

Finally, it should be noted that reasonable suspicion is different from, and a lower standard than, probable cause, which is required for law enforcement to obtain a search warrant or to make an arrest. Both having their genesis in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, which concerns searches and seizures, it can be said that reasonable suspicion is utilized when conducting a search, and probable cause is used for a seizure.

If law enforcement does not have reasonable suspicion, the stop and search would most likely be considered unconstitutional and violative of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. A criminal defense attorney can assist such individuals in petitioning the judge to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal stop, potentially leading to an acquittal or dismissal.

What Constitutes Reasonable Suspicion?

Since reasonable suspicion has its basis in Fourth Amendment law, there is no Massachusetts statute specifically laying out what is and what is not reasonable suspicion. Rather, both Commonwealth and federal case law provide some indication, such as the following:

  • Law enforcement must have something more than speculation that a law was violated.
  • Reasonable suspicion can manifest from an illegal act observed by law enforcement. If the act is not illegal, there can be no reasonable suspicion.
  • However, even if the act is not illegal, reasonable suspicion may still arise if law enforcement later observes illegal behavior.
  • Even if law enforcement makes a mistake in believing a violation of law occurred, if the mistake was objectively reasonable, reasonable suspicion will most likely still be found.

Seek Legal Advice

If you have been charged with a crime, and believe that law enforcement obtained evidence where they did not have reasonable suspicion to search, speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The attorneys at Leontire & Associates, P.C. have the experience necessary to analyze your case, and, if they are in agreement, to do what is necessary in an attempt to mitigate the charges against you, or have them dropped altogether. Contact our Boston office today.


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