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Suspicion is a cognition of mistrust in which a person doubts the honesty of another person or believes another person to be guilty of some type of wrongdoing or crime, but without sure proof. Suspicion can also be aroused in response to objects that negatively differ from an expected idea. In the US, the courts use the term "reasonable suspicion" in connection with the right of the police to stop people on the street. The word comes from Middle-English via the Old French word "suspicion", which is a variation of the Italian word "sospetto" (a derivative of the Latin term "suspectio", which means "to watch").
English philosopher, statesman, and author Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote an essay entitled Of Suspicion, in which he stated that suspicions need to be repressed and well-guarded, because otherwise they will cloud the mind, and cause a ruler to move towards tyranny, due to the fear that his subjects are conspiring against him, and a husband to become jealous and fearful of his wife's interactions with other men. Bacon argued that the root of suspicion was a lack of knowledge; as such, the remedy to suspicion was to learn more about the issue that is troubling you. If a husband is concerned about his wife's male friends, he should ask her about the nature of these friendships, and state his concerns, rather than building up his suspicions. Bacon urged people who were harbouring suspicions to be frank with the people that they were suspecting, and clear the matter up.
The British dramatist William Shakespeare noted that "suspicion always haunts the guilty mind". English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor Ben Jonson (1572–1637), a contemporary of Shakespeare, described suspicion as a "black poison" that "infects the human mind like a plague". Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), an English author and essayist, called suspicion a "useless pain" in which a person has a belief that a formidable evil lies within all of their fellow men. The Scottish poet and a lyricist Robert Burns (1759–1796) called suspicion a "heavy armour" that impedes humans more than it protects them. Mahatma Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of the non-violent Indian independence movement, warned that if suspicions arise about any of a person's motives, then all of their acts can become tainted with this mistrust and uncertainty.
"Suspicion" in Roman law meant an opinion founded on a small amount of evidence and far from certain. Trajan ruled that "no one should be condemned on the ground of suspicion alone". Medieval Roman law of evidence regarded suspicion as a low grade of proof, sufficient for making further inquiries but insufficient for making a legal decision.
In the US and Canada, the concept of suspicion is part of the legal codes. People can be arrested on suspicion of involvement in various criminal activities ranging from driving under the influence to belonging to a criminal gang. As well, in the US, the courts use the term "reasonable suspicion" in connection with the right of the police to stop people on the street. In the US, police officers cannot legally stop a person and search the person for no reason, or just because they have an inexplicable "hunch" or "bad feeling" about a person.
Before police can stop and search a person (or the person's vehicle), the police have to have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is involved in some illegal activity. A person walking down the street may be stopped and searched if they are walking unsteadily or erratically, because that behaviour suggests that the person may be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A person driving a car may be stopped and searched if the car is weaving in traffic or if the driver goes through a stop sign, because this behaviour may suggest drunk driving. A person walking into a bank in the middle of summer who is wearing a heavy woolen winter coat may be stopped and searched, because officers may have a reasonable suspicion that the individual may be hiding something under his coat, such as a shotgun or rifle.
Frisking and "Terry stops"
Frisking or a "patdown" is a search of a person's outer clothing wherein a police officer or other law enforcement agent runs his or her hands along the outer garments to detect any concealed weapons. In the case of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the Supreme Court of the United States held that police have the ability to do a limited search for weapons of areas within the suspect’s control based on a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person stopped was "armed or dangerous" and had been, is, or was about to engage in a criminal act. The type of frisk authorized by this decision has become known as a "Terry stop". When stopping someone, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has been, is being, or is about to be committed.
The use of "Terry stops" has led to legal controversies in the US, because a series of high court rulings has lowered the standard needed by police to have reasonable suspicion of people who are in what are called "high crime" areas. Since high-crime neighborhoods tend to be lower-income areas inhabited by Black or Hispanic people, some critics[who?] argue that the "high crime" area exception to the constitutional right against searches applies mainly to poor non-whites. As well, critics have argued that the designation of a neighborhood as a "high crime" area can be subjective. In some court cases, the judges have accepted police officers' testimony that a neighborhood was a "high crime" area without asking for independent, objective confirmation via crime rate statistics.
U.S. Customs can do suspicionless searches of people and effects crossing the border (including passing through airport customs). However, non-routine or invasive searches, like slashing open the spare tire of a car or cutting open a metal panel in a car, require reasonable suspicion (United States v. Flores-Montano). Anything even more intrusive, like compelled surgery of a suspected balloon swallower (a person who places illegal drugs in a balloon or condom which is tied and then swallowed), requires probable cause (United States v. Montoya De Hernandez).
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- Digest 48.19.5.
- J. Franklin, The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 20–21, 29–31.