What Is Probable Cause?

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 which 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

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:

1. When the person in charge of the premises gives consent;
2. When conducting searches connected to a lawful arrest; and
3. 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.”

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.

For example, imagine an officer pulls 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.

Challenging Probable Cause

Berry Law has successfully challenged officers’ claims of probable cause, leading to many case dismissals or reduced sentences. Probable cause may not always exist when a police officer conducts a warrantless search or makes a warrantless arrest.

Probable cause 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 will do everything possible to defend your Constitutional rights

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