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Probable Cause v. Reasonable Suspicion

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

There's a story unfolding in Michigan which involves three Texas men that I want to discuss. But first, lets brush up on a couple of legal terms. To fully understand these terms will aid us in making an educated assessment of the facts presented thus far in this case.
The most widely held common definition would be "a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed" and that the person is linked to the crime with the same degree of certainty. An alternative definition has been proposed, "reason to believe that an injury had criminal cause", which is claimed to be more protective of individual rights as was intended by the authors of the Bill of Rights. See the critique below.
In the context of warrants, the Oxford Companion to American Law defines probable cause as "information sufficient to warrant a prudent person's belief that the wanted individual had committed a crime (for an arrest warrant) or that evidence of a crime or contraband would be found in a search (for a search warrant)." "Probable cause" is a stronger standard of evidence than a reasonable suspicion, but weaker than what is required to secure a criminal conviction. Even hearsay can supply probable cause if it is from a reliable source or is supported by other evidence.
Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard in United States law, that a person has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts and inferences. It is the basis for an investigatory or Terry stop by the police and requires less evidence than probable cause, the legal requirement for arrests and warrants. Reasonable suspicion is evaluated using the "reasonable person" or "reasonable officer" standard, in which said person in the same circumstances could reasonably believe a person has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity; such suspicion is not a mere hunch. Police may also, based solely on reasonable suspicion of a threat to safety, frisk a suspect for weapons, but not for contraband like drugs. A combination of particular facts, even if individually innocuous, can form the basis of reasonable suspicion.
Now that we understand the legal requirements for 'probable cause' and 'reasonable suspicion' we can look at this CNN News story:
CARO, Michigan (AP) -- The FBI said Monday it had no information to indicate that the three Texas men arrested with about 1,000 cell phones in their van had any direct connection to known terrorist groups.
Authorities had increased patrols on Michigan's five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge after local prosecutors said investigators believed the men were targeting the span.
Local authorities didn't say what they believed the men intended to do with the phones, most of which were prepaid TracFones, but Caro's police chief noted that cell phones can be untraceable and used as detonators.
The FBI issued a news release Monday saying there is no imminent threat to the bridge linking Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas.
Obviously, their reliance on 'probable cause' is out the window in this case. Technically, there has been no crime committed, unless purchasing mass quantities of cell phones has somehow become illegal. If that's the case, the Wal-Mart store where they bought the cell phones from could have just as easily been charged.
So, what were they charged with? The article states:
Local prosecutors charged them with collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and surveillance of a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes.
These are, of course, crimes found under the USA Patriot Act (see 18USC2339A and 2339B for more information). According to the article, the FBI field office is using pictures of the Mackinac Bridge which they found on a camera belonging to the men as well as the not yet realized profits from the sale of these cell phones. William Kowalski, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit field office, even went so far as to say there was nothing illegal about buying cell phones in bulk, but that profits from that kind of activity can be suspicious.
So, where does that leave us? The FBI is essentially relying on 'reasonable suspicion' that these men were up to no good. The problem with their argument is that they themselves have disconnected the men from any 'terrorist acts' or 'terrorist purposes' by admitting they don't have any evidence connecting these three individuals to any known terrorist organizations. They also admit that they believe their activities "can be suspicious," but that they technically have done nothing illegal. Their admissions, in my opinion, pushes their case back under the umbrella protection of 'probable cause'.
This story stinks to high heaven of heavy handed policing. The FBI office needs to admit that it made a mistake, give back their cell phones, and hope to god that they don't get sued.


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