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A Reason to Believe

For those readers looking for spiritual or emotional guidance based on title of this article, sorry to disappoint. This blog will not offer motivational sentiments to change lives or the way one views the world. Instead, it will discuss an officer’s burden of proof for initiating a traffic stop to investigate a possible overweight vehicle violation.

In a courtroom, the term “burden of proof” can have very different meanings depending on the type of case which is being prosecuted. Most people are familiar with the phrase “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Usually only heard on television or in movies, people usually do not understand the true meaning or when it’s applicable in a court setting.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of which can be achieved in criminal court. This means exactly what it sounds like – the evidence presented has removed any reasonable doubt of a person’s innocence in the minds of the judge or jurors.

The next highest burden of proof is called “preponderance of the evidence.” This threshold is used in civil cases such as ordinance violations or TV shows like “Judge Judy.” Because there is no chance of incarceration, the burden is significantly lower than that of a criminal case. Many would describe preponderance of the evidence as 51%, or more likely than not that the person committed the violation.

Both phrases are used in court to decide the outcome of a case, but these are not what is required of an officer taking enforcement action on the street. While most officers attempt to build the strongest case possible, they are under no obligation to meet the aforementioned burdens of proof.

Before issuing a citation or making an arrest, an officer must meet a burden of proof called “probable cause.” This means an offense has been committed based on the circumstances, physical evidence and the officer’s observations, training and experience also know as the totality of the circumstances.

Many times, officers will wait until they have met this burden of proof before initiating a traffic stop. For example, an officer may witness a vehicle making a lane change without signaling. Through his training and experience, the officer knows this is a violation of the law.

Based on his observation, there is probable cause a violation has been committed. The officer has the authority to make a traffic stop and issue a citation. Probable cause, however, is a much higher burden than what is needed to stop a person (or vehicle).

To make a stop, an officer only needs what is called “reasonable suspicion.” The officer only needs to prove a reasonable person would believe a crime has been, is currently being or is about to be committed.

An officer must have reasonable and articulable suspicion of the above circumstances to temporarily detain any person. This applies to traffic stops and pedestrian stops. It is a very low burden, however, it is all which is needed to initiate an investigation. Every case is unique and the amount of evidence needed always depends on the totality of the circumstances.

Finally, at the very bottom of the burden of proof totem pole is what an officer needs to stop a vehicle he believes to be overweight. This is called “reason to believe.”

It sounds like “reasonable suspicion”, but is far from it! Reason to believe is spelled out in 625 ILCS 5/15-112 and is only applicable to an officer investigating an overweight violation. The officer must be able to explain why he believed the vehicle was overweight.

This articulation can be based on a variety of things. The longer an officer is active in overweight vehicle enforcement and the more experience he obtains, the more reasons the officer will be able to explain as to why he thought the vehicle was overweight. While “reason to believe” is enough to stop a truck to initiative a weight investigation, more evidence will be needed to rise to the level of probable cause to issue a citation.

With such a low burden of proof being needed, there is a potential for statutory abuse. ITEA certified officers understand this high responsibility. The criminal justice system and the trucking industry rely on officers using their police powers in lawful ways to protect those traveling on the roads.

The court system is a confusing labyrinth of rules, statutes and overzealous individuals who are quick to point a finger of fault. Officers do their absolute best to navigate through that labyrinth with honor and integrity while protecting those who they have been sworn to serve.

If stopped by an officer for an overweight investigation, please realize the officer has already evaluated the circumstances several times in the few moments prior to initiating the traffic stop. He has decided there is reason to believe that the vehicle is overweight. It’s okay to disagree, but the roadside or scalehouse is not the venue to argue the case. There will be an opportunity to enter the labyrinth and argue appropriate levels of burdens.

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