The phrase “probable cause” comes from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the persons or things to be searched.”
This means “probable cause” must exist before a court issues a warrant for arrests or to search or seize property. As seen below, probable cause can take many forms.
Establishing Probable Cause
To establish probable cause, police officers must be able to cite objective facts or circumstances that led them to believe a suspect committed a crime. For example, a police officer can’t arrest someone or search a car on a hunch or a gut feeling. They must use facts to support their reasoning.
In every case, it’s up to a judge to decide if probable cause exists. Even in warrantless arrests or searches, a judge will decide after the fact whether the police officer’s actions were legal.
But this doesn’t mean that the arrest of an innocent person is illegal. If circumstances and facts led a police officer to believe that someone was guilty of a crime, a judge may agree.
Probable Cause to Search a Property
When a police officer is faced with facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe a crime was committed at the place to be searched or that evidence of a crime exists at the location, probable cause to search most likely exists.
In some cases, a search warrant is obtained before the police conduct a search. In others, a search is made before a warrant can be issued.
Common situations in which police are allowed to make warrantless searches include:
- When the person in charge of the premises gives consent
- When conducting searches connected to a lawful arrest
- Situations threatening public safety or the loss of evidence.
In addition, police do not need a warrant to search or seize stolen items or illegal drugs or weapons “in plain view.”
A good example of probable cause to search a property is the scenario of a drug house. Police may know (or at least highly suspect) that the property is used for selling drugs, and they want to obtain a warrant. To get a warrant, they will need to convince a judge a crime is being committed at the location. Officers may use surveillance evidence, communication records, witness statements, and other relevant information and present it to the judge. If the judge approves the search warrant, the officers may conduct their search.
If police officers search a property without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause, it is most likely an unreasonable search and a violation of the suspect’s Constitutional rights.
Probable Cause in Vehicle Searches
Although people don’t have the same expectation of privacy in their cars on public roads, that doesn’t mean they don’t have rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, since one of the aspects of probable cause is the reasonable belief through evidence a crime has been committed, simply being stopped for a minor crime such as a traffic violation could give officers enough information to establish probable cause. But not always.
For instance, if you’re pulled over for speeding, that, in itself, is likely not enough to warrant probable cause you have illicit substances or weapons in your car. However, if officers pull you over for driving erratically, or if they detect the odor or presence of illegal substances, or if you appear impaired that may provide them with the information they need to search your vehicle.
If police don’t have probable cause to search your car and you don’t provide consent for them to do so, the officers legally have no right to search your car.
Probable Cause for Arrest
When a police officer is faced with facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe a suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, probable cause for arrest most likely exists.
In some cases, an arrest warrant is obtained before the police take someone into custody, but police will use probable cause to make warrantless arrests, as well.
Going back to the traffic stop example: Imagine an officer pulling a car over for speeding. When he approaches the driver’s window, he notices small baggies of white powder sitting in the passenger’s seat. This fact is used to make a warrantless search (see the above section), upon which the officer discovers that the white powder is cocaine. Even if the driver of the car says he was not aware of the cocaine, the officer has probable cause to arrest him because a reasonable person would conclude that the driver did in fact know about the drugs.
Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined reasonable suspicion as “the sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior” that practical people would rely upon. In other words, any reasonable person would suspect a crime had been committed or was in the process of being committed.
Like probable cause, reasonable suspicion relies on more than just conjecture or a hunch. The officer needs facts or circumstances to have a reasonable suspicion to search a suspect. Unlike probable cause, the officers cannot arrest someone based solely on a reasonable suspicion.
Although people often misuse and confuse probable cause and reasonable suspicion, the two have far different meanings. They also have different repercussions regarding a person’s rights and the legality of a search and seizure. If a police officer stops and searches you based solely on reasonable suspicion, your defense attorney may be able to use that to have any evidence obtained from the search suppressed.
You can think of reasonable suspicion as a step before probable cause. Reasonable suspicion stems from the appearance a crime has occurred, which could lead to probable cause if there are obvious signs and articulable evidence a crime has been committed.
Challenging Probable Cause
To challenge probable cause, you need a defense attorney to question the evidence itself and try to prove it is invalid, biased, or otherwise inadmissible. Probable cause may not always exist when a police officer conducts a warrantless search or makes a warrantless arrest, and it can be an important concept in a criminal law case.
If you believe your property was searched or you were arrested without probable cause, contact Berry Law. Our team of criminal defense attorneys has successfully challenged officers’ claims of probable cause, leading to many case dismissals or reduced sentences. We will do everything possible to defend your Constitutional rights and help you achieve the best outcome possible.