What Is Probable Cause?

Whether you have ever read a crime thriller or seen Law and Order, you have likely heard the term “probable cause” used quite a few times. While Hollywood may overdo it, probable cause is an essential component of a defendant’s constitutional rights and the criminal justice system. Without probable cause, police are limited in when they may detain, search, and arrest a suspect.

What Is Probable Cause?

The requirement for the existence of probable cause is found in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. As stated above, probable cause must be found before police can make an arrest, conduct a search, or even be granted a warrant. Per the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law School, probable cause is defined as a “reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed.” However, probable cause is not explicitly defined, and has therefore been the subject of much debate and variations in interpretation over the years.

Probable Cause for Searches and Arrests

The following considers some examples of police searches or arrests where probable cause is or is not present.

  • Situation #1: A car is traveling down the road going the speed limit, and traveling at the speed of traffic. The police officer is having a bad day, and pulls the driver over based on their skin color “just to check things out.”

This is an example where no probable cause for pulling the person over exists – there was no obvious violation of law or statute occurring.

  • Situation #2: After pulling a driver over for speeding 10 miles above the limit, a police officer asks for the driver’s license and registration. When the driver opens their glove box to grab the requested documents, a rolled joint – appearing to be marijuana – falls to the floor. The police officer asks the driver to step out of the car in order for the officer to conduct a search.

This is a situation where probable cause does exist. The officer saw what appeared to be an illegal and impairing substance within the vehicle, and therefore has cause to search the vehicle.

  • Situation #3: A theft crime is committed in a local neighborhood. Police arrive on scene, and spot a person near the area of the crime. The police approach the person and begin questioning them. The person complies, and shows no sign of threat. Regardless, police tell the person to put their hands above their head and to comply with a personal search.

This is a situation in which police did not  have probable cause to search the person, as there was no threat of bodily injury to the police, nor any sign that the person had a weapon or illegal item on their person.

What to Do When Probable Cause Doesn’t Exist

While it does not always happen, there are some police officers who will make an arrest or conduct a search without probable cause. When this is the case, your constitutional rights have been violated, and you have the right to take action. Start by calling an attorney, who can help you to explore having charges against you dismissed or dropped, as well as your civil options moving forward.

At The Law Offices of Paul R. Moraski, we believe in each person’s rights under the law. When these rights are breached, count on our experienced criminal defense attorney. Call us now at 978-397-0011.