Imagine you are driving on a highway, and a police officer asks you to pull over. You stop your vehicle. The police officer asks you to show your driving license. After checking your license, they ask to search you and your vehicle.

Should you allow them to conduct this search? No.

The reason is that they don’t have probable cause. Do you know what probable cause is and what it entails? No need to worry if you don’t. We will explain it to you in detail. Learning about probable cause might help you avoid unfavorable circumstances with the police.

Probable cause refers to the requirement that police have adequate reason to seize property, conduct a search, or arrest someone. The police can’t obtain an arrest warrant or make an arrest without probable cause. Police officers must lay down objective circumstances that led them to believe that a crime was committed by the suspect to establish the cause. A police officer cannot establish a probable cause by simply saying something like he had a hunch that the defendant stole something.

Ultimately judges decide whether probable cause exists or not. A police officer might believe that probable cause exists. However, if the judge examines the same information, and they decide that the probable cause doesn’t exist, then the police can’t make an arrest. It is worth noting that a police officer may make an arrest believe that a probable cause exists. However, the facts and information will later be examined by the judge, and if they disagree, the suspect will have to be let go.

Probable Cause for Making an Arrest

Probable cause for making an arrest exists when the police officer has the information that would lead a typical individual to believe that the suspect is committing or has committed a crime. Probable cause must always come from facts and circumstances, and they can’t simply be an officer’s suspicion. Detentions don’t require probable cause – they only require reasonable suspicion. This includes pedestrian stops and car stops, among other things. Reasonable suspicion refers to facts that would lead a typical person to believe that a crime was at hand, and investigation needs to be carried out for further information. Detentions can also turn into arrests. Often, the police might detain an individual and then place them in physical restraints after finding evidence suggesting that a crime was committed. These actions will trigger the requirement of probable cause. If an individual is arrested without legal cause, they can file a lawsuit against the police.

Probable Cause to Conduct a Search

Probable cause for conducting a search exists when the information known to the police officer will lead a typical person to believe that some criminal activity took place at the location to be searched or evidence of a crime is present at the location. In search warrants, the place that has to be searched will be specified by the judge. In many instances, a search warrant isn’t required to conduct a search. Some examples include:

  • If there is an emergency and public safety is threatened, or there is a risk that the evidence might get lost
  • When the search is connected to a lawful arrest
  • When the person who is in charge of the place or vehicle gives their consent

Probable Cause for Seizing Property

Probable cause for seizing property exists when the information known to the police officer would lead a typical person to believe that the property or item is stolen, contraband, or constitutes evidence of criminal activity. When the police obtains a search warrant, they can only search for items that are listed in the warrant. However, if they come across any evidence of other crimes, they can seize it. If it is proved in the court that the evidence came from an illegal search, it can’t be used in court. The judge would exclude that piece of evidence from the case.

Examples of Probable Cause

Example 1:

Officer James arrives at Macy’s Electronic Store moments after it has been robbed. A woman claiming to be Macy is on the scene, and she tells Officer James that a man, approximately 6” tall and weighing over 200 pounds, robbed all of the store’s cash. A few minutes later, Officer James pulls a vehicle over for speeding. The driver of the vehicle matches the robber’s description.

Moreover, Officer James sees a bag containing a lot of money in the back seat. Though Officer James didn’t see the robbery itself, the driver of the vehicle matches the description of the robber and also has the money that looks like what Macy was missing. In this case, James has probable cause to put the driver under arrest.

Example 2:

Officer Mark pulls over a car and its occupants for speeding. He searches the car and finds bags of cocaine. All the occupants say that they had no idea about the cocaine. Officer Mark has probable cause to arrest all the occupants of the vehicle. Since there is no evidence suggesting that the cocaine belonged to a particular occupant, the officer can conclude that all of them know about the cocaine.

Example 3:

While on patrol, Officer Richard sees an over-speeding vehicle. He asks the driver to pull over. Instead of slowing down and stopping his vehicle, the driver increases his speed and tries to run away. Officer Richard calls for back-up and is now involved in a high-speed chase. The driver of the vehicle tries to run away but gets stuck in traffic. The cop asks the driver to put their hands in the air and come out of the vehicle. In this case, the police have probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime. If they hadn’t done something wrong, they wouldn’t have tried to escape. The police officer can search the vehicle and put the driver under arrest. Charges will be filed against them for attempting to evade, flee, or elude a police officer.

Probable Cause Hearings

There are two kinds of probable cause hearings. A probable cause hearing generally happens when the defendant is brought in front of the judge after their arrest. The judge determines whether probable cause exists or not. If it doesn’t exist, the law enforcement agency won’t be able to hold the accused in custody. The other probable cause hearing takes place after the prosecution has filed charges. In this hearing, the judge considers testimony to determine if the defendant committed the criminal activity or not. If probable cause doesn’t exist, the case won’t move forward towards trial.

The Requirement of Probable Cause

The requirement of probable cause for a search and seizure is found in the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. According to the 4th Amendment, no police officer is allowed to violate the right of people to be secure in their houses. Moreover, no warrants can be issued unless probable cause exists, and the warrant should describe the place that has to be searched and the things or persons that have to be searched.

The constitutional prohibitions against searches and seizures are similar in all states. Probable cause requirements work in tandem with the requirement of a warrant. The warrant refers to the document that allows a police officer to arrest a person, search a person, or search a person’s property. A warrant must be signed and approved by a judge before the police can act on it. To obtain an arrest warrant or search warrant, police officers must present enough facts to the judge to constitute probable cause. Not all arrests and searchers require a warrant, though. There are some exceptions where police can search and even arrest suspects without a warrant.

The amount of evidence constituting probable cause depends on the case’s circumstances. To illustrate, let us assume that the police stops a car for speeding. If there are no facts that indicate that criminal activity was performed by the vehicle’s driver, the officer can’t conduct a search of the vehicle or the driver. If they did, it would be the violation of the 4th Amendment, and the lawyer of the defendant can file a motion to dismiss any evidence found from this search. The mere commission of speeding is not a fact supporting a probable cause that would lead the officer to believe that the driver committed a crime. However, if the police officer notices that the driver smells of alcohol or their eyes look red, the officer may detain them, search them, and even arrest them. A driver’s commission of speeding or any other traffic violation combined with the fact that they look like they have used alcohol or drugs constitutes evidence to lead a typical individual to believe that the suspect is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It is worth noting that probable cause isn’t equal to 100% certainty. The police officer doesn’t have to be completely sure that a crime is being committed or was committed to making an arrest, perform a search, or seize property. Probable cause may exist even where there is a doubt about the guilt of the person.

What Does Probable Cause Mean To You

In some situations, police officers need a warrant to search your property or you. However, during a traffic stop, probable cause is required to conduct a vehicle search. The major exception to the requirement of probable cause is consent. Most vehicle searchers occur because people get intimidated or tricked into consenting to the request of the police officer. Consenting to a police officer’s request to search the vehicle makes the search legal.

Moreover, the 4th Amendment does not require police officers to inform you about your right to refuse the search. So if you are pulled over, don’t try to determine whether the officer has a probable cause to search you. You have the right to refuse, so tell the police officer that you don’t consent to any searches. If the officer carries out the search even after you refused, this search would be illegal, and any evidence found as a result of it may not be used against you at a trial. Your attorney can file a motion to throw out the evidence. If the judge finds that the police officer violated the 4th Amendment’s requirement of probable cause, they will grant the motion, and the charges against you would be dismissed unless the prosecution can present any other evidence.

Final Thoughts

Probable cause is an extremely important element in criminal law. Without it, the police may not search a person or their property or make an arrest. When you are in a situation where the police attempts to search you without probable cause, don’t consent to the search and simply exercise your right to deny the search. Without probable cause, any search conducted by the police officer would be illegal. A police officer can make an arrest or conduct a search believing that a probable cause exists. But the judge will have the final say on it, and if they decide that the probable cause doesn’t exist, the defendant will be let go. We hope you find the information provided above helpful, understand what probable cause means, and what it entails. For any questions or queries relating to probable cause, feel free to reach out to us.