What is Probable Cause?

What is Probable Cause?The term “probable cause” is often misunderstood. Police officers look for probable cause to make an arrest or conduct a search of someone engaged in illegal activity. A  police officer has probable cause when they believe someone committed a crime based on evidence and observations. However, it requires an officer to show more than a hunch or feeling that someone committed a crime.

If an officer has enough probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, it can lead to arrest and criminal charges. 

When Does Law Enforcement Have Probable Cause?

A law enforcement officer has probable cause when they have a reasonable belief that someone is: 

  • committing a crime, 
  • has committed a crime, 
  • or is about to commit a crime. 

Probable cause relies on supporting facts and circumstances and gives a police officer grounds for an arrest. Importantly, an arrest is not legal unless a police officer has probable cause. Likewise, prosecutors cannot bring criminal charges without probable cause. 

Probable cause can also lead to police searches if a warrant exception exists. A warrant exception allows the police to search someone without the need for a warrant. An example of a warrant exception is “plain sight.” If an officer personally witnesses illegal activity, they may search a suspect without a warrant.

When Does a Police Officer Have a Reasonable Suspicion?

The United States Supreme Court has defined reasonable suspicion as “the sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people are entitled to rely.” Thus, a police officer may develop a reasonable suspicion based on their observations of potential criminal behavior. In other words, a police officer uses their common-sense observations of an individual’s behavior to determine whether they may be committing a crime or hiding evidence of a crime. 

If an officer has a reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime, then the officer can stop, frisk, and even detain that individual. This procedure is known as a Terry stop, based on the Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio. This tactic allows police officers the opportunity for further investigation, which may result in probable cause. However, an officer cannot search or arrest an individual based on reasonable suspicion alone. 

How Do Police Officers Establish Probable Cause?

Police officers can establish probable cause in many ways. They may rely on eyewitnesses, confidential informants, and even their own perceptions when dealing with someone who they believe may have committed a crime. To establish probable cause, an officer must point to specific and particular facts that lead the officer to believe the accused committed a crime. 

If an officer establishes probable cause to believe criminal activity has occurred, they may have grounds to arrest the suspect. Likewise, prosecutors may have grounds to bring potential criminal charges against a suspect. 

An officer needs to establish as much probable cause as possible to justify their actions. An experienced defense attorney will be able to contest the officer’s grounds and explanations for a search, arrest, or detention.

Why is Probable Cause Important?

Probable cause is important because it allows police officers to make arrests, with or without an arrest warrant. An officer can make an arrest without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed but cannot seek an arrest warrant. Law enforcement officers may not be able to obtain a warrant, for example, due to an urgent need to preserve evidence or public safety.

If an officer believes that he or she has probable-cause-generating evidence against an individual, they can take that information to a judge for warrant authorization for an arrest. If the judge agrees that probable cause is present, then they can issue an arrest warrant, allowing the officer to legally arrest the individual they are targeting. 

Who Determines if There Was Probable Cause in a Case?

Police officers may make the initial determination of probable cause, but the final word on whether probable cause exists in a given case rests solely with a judge. While the original arrest may have been based on the appropriate amount of probable cause at the time, a judge can later determine that there was insufficient probable cause and dismiss a criminal charge. 

Defendants can challenge probable cause on both factual and legal grounds. If an officer acted illegally or violated an individual’s Constitutional rights during an investigation, then any evidence that the police officer uncovered may be suppressed during trial. A defendant can also appeal a judge’s finding on probable cause to a higher court. 

Make Sure to Speak to an Attorney if You Have Been Accused of a Crime

If you have been accused of a crime, it is important that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. We offer a free consultation so you can have your case examined by a seasoned professional.