Race and Reasonable Suspicion

67 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2020 Last revised: 24 Jun 2021

See all articles by Ric Simmons

Ric Simmons

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: September 21, 2020


The current political moment requires us to rethink the ways that race impacts policing. Many of the solutions will be political in nature, but legal reform is necessary as well. Law enforcement officers have a long history of considering a suspect’s race when conducting criminal investigations. The civil rights movement and the progressive criminal justice decisions of the Warren Court mitigated the explicit use of race as a factor, but there is ample evidence that many modern police officers still openly or implicitly use race to guide their investigative decisions.

This article examines and critiques how courts have historically analyzed the question of race in the context of determining reasonable suspicion or probable cause. There are two constitutional provisions that regulate whether and how the police can use race as a factor to meet the legal standards. Under the Fourth Amendment, police can only use race as a factor if race is relevant to the likelihood that the suspect is engaged in criminal activity. In theory, there could be a relationship between race and criminal activity in a narrow subset of cases. But in reality, police and courts rely on dubious anecdotal data to support this relationship, and conduct flawed statistical analysis to calculate the strength of the relationship. Also, much of the data that exists is tainted by decades of biased policing and prosecution practices. Because there are a small subset of cases in which a correlation between race and crime may exist; we need a legal reform that requires prosecutors to demonstrate the existence and strength of the correlation through empirical data rather than through the subjective experiences of law enforcement.

Under the Equal Protection Clause, police officers may only explicitly use race to support individualized suspicion if the use of race is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest and there is no race-neutral factor that would also satisfy that interest. Although one would expect this standard to severely limit the use of race in criminal investigations, courts have allowed police to use race in a surprising number of cases. In many cases, courts do not even find that the explicit use of race triggers strict scrutiny. In other cases, when so-called race neutral factors trigger disparate impact, the evidentiary burden shifts to criminal defendants to prove that the race-neutral factor was applied with discriminatory purpose, a standard which is nearly impossible to establish. Even when strict scrutiny is triggered, courts have often been willing to conclude that crime control is a compelling state interest and that the use of race is narrowly tailored to meet that interest. This article argues that courts in criminal cases must apply an Equal Protection test identical to the test used in civil cases in order to limit the use of race in criminal investigations, thereby limiting the practice to the rare instances when it is truly necessary.

Keywords: probable cause, reasonable suspicion, Fourth Amendment, Equal Protection, Race, racial profiling, disparate impact

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Simmons, Ric, Race and Reasonable Suspicion (September 21, 2020). 73 Florida Law Review 413 (2021), Ohio State Legal Studies Research Paper No. 572, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3696453 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3696453

Ric Simmons (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States

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