The Fourth Amendment protects your rights against arbitrary arrests and unlawful searches. If police officers need to arrest someone or conduct a search without a warrant, they must show that they have probable cause to take action.
Probable cause is a legal concept. Courts usually find probable cause when law enforcement can show there is a reasonable basis to believe that:
The problem with probable cause is simply that the idea is open to interpretation. In general, if an officer can show they had a “reasonable” belief that someone committed a crime, the court will often determine that the officer had probable cause. What qualifies as a reasonable belief, however, will vary from case to case.
For instance, a police officer may see you leaving a residence and holding something that appears to be a weapon. This officer can make an arrest if you were acting suspiciously or fit the description of the suspect in a crime that was called in. But if you were merely walking along, doing nothing out of the ordinary, police can’t arrest you and search for a weapon or stolen property.
Having probable cause is especially important if the police do not have a warrant but they make an arrest anyway. An officer will need to go before a judge to show that they had probable cause and, as such, did not need to get a warrant. This usually happens when officers believe that they caught someone at the scene of a crime and had no time to get a warrant.
For instance, if officers see someone steal a car, they do not need a warrant to apprehend the person. Probable cause has already been established since they witnessed the crime. The same applies in drunk driving stops. If the officer believes that you are driving under the influence, they can arrest you without waiting for a warrant.
Probable cause also comes into play when police are requesting a warrant to search a building. In such cases, they must show that there is a reason to conduct the search. They cannot simply search the premises looking for infractions.
Once again, probable cause in these situations is open to interpretation. Generally, officers who carry out a warrantless search and find evidence may have to prove that they had reason to do so in court. This is why it’s important to remember that you do not have to consent to a search of your home if police show up without a warrant. Any evidence they obtain without having probable cause will be inadmissible in court.
Law enforcement must show they had probable cause to arrest a person or search their property. But what qualifies as probable cause will depend on the specific facts of your case. Speak to a criminal defense attorney if you want to learn more or get legal advice on your specific case. An experienced criminal defense attorney will know if you have options for having evidence tossed out, which could even mean having your charges reduced or dismissed.
An arrest and conviction can change everything. Fines or time in jail are the immediate concern, but a conviction will also mean a criminal record that can make it harder to find a job and housing for years to come. If you are arrested or learn you are under investigation, the first thing you should do is contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. You can search LawInfo’s legal directory to find a local criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights, lay out your options, and help you determine the best way to proceed with mounting a defense and limiting potential penalties.