What You Need to Know about Reasonable Suspicion to Stop

How to tell if your stop was legal or illegal; What happens when your rights are violated?

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable Suspicion is a standard of proof in criminal law recognized throughout the United States.

It refers to the justification needed by police to make an investigative stop.

Reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch, feeling, or guess.

This standard requires the police to have an unbiased belief that a crime or violation of the law is in progress or has occurred.

The reasonable suspicion standard requires that the objective belief be based on specific facts or circumstances.

These factors must be articulable and capable of being expressed clearly.

Reasonable suspicion in criminal law is a higher standard than preponderance of the evidence in civil law proceedings.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause which is required for police to obtain a search warrant, or make an arrest.

There are a few exceptions to the need for reasonable suspicion to make a stop.  One example of an exception is a stop at a designated DUI safety checkpoint, whereby vehicles are stopped in a predetermined numerical order in those jurisdictions utilizing recommended National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines.

Any police stop can result in seizure of illegal drugs, or lead to other criminal charges.

In order for police to make an investigative stop, not including safety checkpoint stops, they must have reasonable suspicion that you violated the law.

But what happens when police stop you in absence of reasonable suspicion?

Without reasonable suspicion, the stop is unconstitutional and violates your 4th amendment rights.   When this happens, it means the stop was unlawful.

When the stop is unlawful, your criminal defense attorney can file a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of that police stop.

If the court agrees to suppress the evidence, often this results in the prosecution having insufficient evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Consequently, suppression of material evidence can lead to an acquittal, not-guilty verdict, or dismissal of the charges.

An Arizona Appeals Court recently considered a case in which the defendant was stopped by police for investigation, while he was riding his bicycle.

Following the stop, the defendant was charged with possession of marijuana.  He was convicted, and sentenced to nine months in prison for the charges.

The defendant argued that his motion to suppress evidence should not have been denied because the officer who stopped him didn’t have reasonable suspicion for the stop.

In this article we will provide an overview of this case, and discuss key elements of reasonable suspicion.

Case Overview

The case began when a Tucson police officer saw the defendant riding his bike on an elevated dirt area near a roadway.

The police stopped the defendant for violating A.R.S. § 28-815, and Tucson City Code § 5-2 (1953), because he suspected the rider was breaking the law by riding his bike on a sidewalk and the left side of the roadway.

While investigating, the officer learned there were outstanding warrants against the defendant and arrested him.

A different officer arrived on the scene and searched the defendant incidental to the suspect’s arrests for the outstanding warrants, and found Marijuana.

The defendant argued that his actions did not constitute a traffic violation, and therefore the officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion to make a lawful stop.

The appeals court noted he was cited for section 28-815(A), which outlines the law pertaining to a riding a bike at less than the normal speed of traffic.

The law indicates that a person riding a bike on a roadway less than the normal speed of traffic should ride as close to the right-hand curb, as possible.

The defendant argued he wasn’t riding his bike on a roadway, and the officer testified that when he stopped the defendant, he was riding on a dirt surface.

The court noted that a roadway is described under Arizona law as a part of the highway which was normally used for auto travel, and was designed for this purpose.

The court determined that the evidence supported that the defendant was not riding on a roadway.

The court explained that the area where the defendant was riding wasn’t a sidewalk either, and pointed out the officer’s own testimony had established this fact.

The State argued that the officer might have believed that the defendant had just committed a traffic violation, or was about to commit one, since he was riding on an unpaved area between two paved areas.

The court noted that the officer only observed the defendant in an area in which the defendant was lawfully riding, which could have been accessed from other lawful directions or means.

In order to have reasonable suspicion, the officer would have had to construct a long made-up narrative based on nothing more than a hunch.

The court noted that a series of innocent acts could, when taken together, produce a reasonable suspicion.

The court determined that nothing was observed beyond a single incident of lawful conduct that would allow the officer to construct a narrative made up of multiple acts that together, produced reasonable suspicion.

The State also argued that the officer might have made an objectively reasonable mistake of law, which would requires the lower court’s ruling related to reasonable suspicion to stand.

An objectively reasonable mistake occurs when an officer mistakenly interprets a statute that is genuinely ambiguous so that arguing against the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work.

The court found no ambiguity in the language of the statutes on which the officer relied.

The State also argued that the discovery of narcotics was too attenuated—too far removed—from the illegality of the stop to justify excluding it.

There are three factors to determine whether the illegal conduct is sufficiently removed from a subsequent search to allow the evidence from a search to be admitted which include:

  1. How much time passed between unlawful police action and finding the evidence;
  2. Whether there are intervening circumstances; and
  3. Purpose and flagrancy of official misconduct.

The court reasoned that in this case, the discovery must have occurred fairly quickly after the illegal stop.

Finding the warrants gave the officer probable cause for arrest, which weighed against exclusion.

The defendant didn’t present any evidence that the officer’s actions were flagrantly inappropriate or a part of a recurrent pattern of unlawful traffic stops.

However, since the State did not argue the attenuation principal at the lower court level, there was no reason for the defendant to present evidence of a pattern or systemic misconduct.

Accordingly, the court sent it back to the trial court for a new evidentiary hearing related to these factors, directing the trial court to conduct the hearing.

The State has asked for a time extension to file a Petition for Review with the Arizona Supreme Court.  We will provide an update the matter if the case is heard.

5 Things You Should Know about What Constitutes Reasonable Suspicion     

When determining whether or not police had reasonable suspicion to make a stop, Arizona courts often look to state and federal case precedents.

The court takes into consideration not just one factor surrounding the stop, but numerous factors or “totality of the circumstances.”

Below are examples of 5 factors that the court may consider to determine if an officer does or does not have reasonable suspicion to make a stop.

  1. Police must have more than speculation that a violation of the law occurred (State v. Evans 2015). If the prosecution is unable to show that police had no more than a hunch that violation of the law was being committed or in progress, the stop is unconstitutional.


  1. Reasonable Suspicion may arise from an act observed by the police officer or reported by another, if the officer who stopped the suspect did not observe it (Arizona v. Box 2015). If one or more of the officer (s) observed only lawful behavior in absence of any other objective facts to support reasonable suspicion, the stop is unlawful.


  1. Reasonable suspicion may be found if the police made a mistake believing a suspect was violating the law. However, the mistake must be objectively reasonable. (Hein v. North Carolina U.S. Supreme Court 2014).  In order for the mistake of law to be a reasonable one, the language of the law must be considered ambiguous, or capable of having more than one meaning.  If the language of the law reads clearly, the mistake is not considered reasonable, and the stop was unconstitutional.


  1. Reasonable suspicion may arise following initial lawful actions, only if the officer observes the suspect further, and later finds suggestive illegal behavior.   (Arizona v. Teagle 2007).  If the officer stopped the suspect only after seeing lawful behavior, without engaging in further observation of illegal behavior, the stop was not lawful.


  1. Reasonable suspicion may be found if otherwise legal behavior is suggestive of previous criminal behavior, such as fleeing from police in a known high crime area. (Adams v. Williams U.S. Supreme Court 1972).  If police stop you for driving, riding or running, and can show no other reason that this behavior is suggestive of prior criminal behavior, the stop is unlawful.

Criminal Defense Attorney for Marijuana Charges Phoenix AZ

Penalties for marijuana offenses and other drug crimes are harsh in Arizona.  Even a conviction for a possession of a small amount for personal use of marijuana is a class 4 felony in Arizona.

Penalties in Arizona are separated into misdemeanors and felonies.

While both have the potential to be serious, felonies exposes a person to prison sentencing, large fines, fees, and assessments, a felony criminal record and other penalties.

The higher the quantity of marijuana you are accused of having in your possession, the more severe the penalties.

Generally when a person is in possession of marijuana in higher quantities, law enforcement suspect that the purpose of possession is to sell, or intends to sell it.

If the offense involves an amount of more than 2 pounds in a person’s possession, charges will be brought as a Class 3 felony.

For offenses involving possession of 4 pounds of marijuana, charges will be brought as a Class 2 felony, second to the most severe category of Class 1.

If you are facing drug charges your freedom and future are at stake.

For these reasons it is important that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you in your criminal matter.

If you face drug charges in Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, or Scottsdale, Phoenix or Mesa AZ, consult Marijuana defense attorney James Novak, of the Law Office of James Novak PLLC at (480) 413-1499.   

James Novak is a former Maricopa County Prosecutor, practices exclusively in criminal defense.

James Novak takes pride in being accessible to his clients, and fighting to defend their rights.

If retained, he will work hard to defend your charges, protect your rights, and personally handle your criminal matter.

The state and prosecution are not required to look for ways to make things easier for you.

They rarely if ever point out to the court or jury that their evidence is weak or invalid.

The state and prosecution do not have to tell the court that your rights were violated when the police stopped you, or that the evidence was obtained unlawfully.

The state will not look for, or present evidence that you are not guilty.

For these reasons it is important that you retain a private practice attorney, to be your own legal advocate to defend your charges.

James Novak gathers all evidence available that the prosecution plans to use against you.  In addition, he seeks out evidence that will work in favor of your defense.

Attorney James Novak, will evaluate the circumstances surrounding your case, along with the evidence, and determine the best course of action for your defense strategy.

He will work to obtain the best possible resolution of your charges.  James Novak offers of free initial consultation for those facing active criminal charges in his service areas.

If you have been charged with a crime call or contact The Law Office of James Novak at (480) 413-1499 and speak directly with Attorney James Novak, regarding your criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

Other Articles of Interest from our Award Winning Blog:


Contact Information