What Is Probable Cause?

Fourth Amendment Rights

Have you recently been the victim of a questionable arrest or a possibly illegal search and seizure? If so, you’re not alone, but one thing may stand in your favor. If members of law enforcement are unable to show probable cause for having acted in this manner, they will have been in the wrong.

The Fourth Amendment spells it out clearly. Without probable cause, the courts have no legal right to issue a warrant for arrest or for a search and seizure of private property. However, many people are not aware that law enforcement will not necessarily need a warrant to do either of these things. If they have probable cause, they can search your car and residence, seize your belongings or even arrest you without one.

What constitutes probable cause? When law enforcement uses it as an excuse for conducting a search or arrest, will they have a way to back up the claim in court if the need should arise in the future?

The Definition of Probable Cause

Probable cause exists when material facts or evidence would cause any reasonable human being to associate a questionable individual with involvement in criminal activity either in the present, the past or the future. The qualifying evidence must be of a type that was obvious and easily apparent to law enforcement. It must also be of a sort that would lead any rational, unbiased individual to reach that same conclusion.

It is vital that the corroborating facts and evidence existed and were available to the police officer involved at the time of the actual arrest or search and seizure. Information gained after the fact will not serve as legal justification for the claim of probable cause. On the other hand, neither can late-breaking and conflicting information serve as a judgment against the officer’s earlier actions. In adjudicating a claim of probable cause, the law can consider only the information that was available to the officer at the time of conducting the arrest or search and seizure.

Some examples of probable cause include:

  • The sight, sound or smell of an illicit substance.
  • Evidence that circumstantially suggests criminal activity.
  • The expertise of law enforcement in evaluating a suspect’s actions, movements or questionable use of tools.
  • Statements of victims, witnesses and tipsters.
  • A suspect’s admission of guilt.

In addition, the suspect himself can have occasioned probable cause as an automatic byproduct of simply having agreed to be searched.

Probable Cause Vs. Reasonable Suspicion

As opposed to probable cause, the legal standard of reasonable suspicion is somewhat weaker in its permissions. It will give a police officer the right to detain you briefly for investigatory reasons or even to frisk you outside your clothes in a search for weapons although not, however, for drugs.

The difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause centers around whether law enforcement was or was not able to back up its beliefs with facts or hard evidence. While probable cause requires the existence of either one or both, reasonable suspicion has need of neither.

Nevertheless, the legal concept of reasonable suspicion does require that the officer who uses it as a stratagem honestly believes that the circumstances of a situation point to past, present or intended future criminal activity. A simple gut feeling will not suffice.

Accordingly, the police can detain a suspect under reasonable suspicion if:

  • He matches the description of a known criminal suspect.
  • The sight of law enforcement causes him to run.
  • Law enforcement sees him trying to hide or dispose of a suspicious object.
  • He appears to be checking out or casing a property prior as a prelude to engaging in unlawful behavior.
  • He behaves in what appears to be a dubious manner.

Under the standard of reasonable suspicion, the officer who wishes to briefly detain a suspect can legally do so with no hard facts or evidence to back up his beliefs. He cannot, however, arrest the suspect, nor can he engage in search and seizure.

Probable Cause in Schools

When it comes to the arena of legal rights, students are somewhat less entitled than are ordinary adults. Thanks to the modern-day rise in violence and drug use, the courts have amplified the rights of school officials as they pertain to student searches. Thus, teachers, principals and school administrators in general can engage in such inspections on public school grounds under the legal construct of reasonable suspicion alone with no need of proving probable cause.

However, the same does not apply to members of law enforcement. A policeman who forces a student to submit to an arrest or search and seizure on or off school property must always show probable cause for having done so.

If a member of law enforcement has subjected you to a search and seizure or put you under arrest without probable cause, the law may be on your side. Why not find out now? Contact Gregory & Waldo today at 702-830-7925 for a free consultation and evaluation of your criminal case.