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Probable Cause to Arrest Someone

Key Takeaways:

  • Courts usually grant probable cause for a warrant when police can prove a reasonable basis exists to believe a search will uncover evidence of a crime.
  • Probable cause for a warrantless search or arrest exists when police witness a criminal act happening.
  • Probable cause prompts questions about what constitutes suspicious behavior and what is "reasonable."

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects your rights against arbitrary arrests and unlawful searches. If police officers need to arrest you or conduct a search without a warrant, they must show that they have probable cause to take action.

If you are facing criminal charges and have serious doubts that police had probable cause to arrest you, you should contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer right away. The closer in time you are to the facts surrounding your arrest, the better the chances that a challenge to probable cause will be successful.

What Is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is a legal concept. It is one of the foundations of criminal procedure. While a definition of probable cause is difficult, it tries to answer the question of what is a “reasonable suspicion” to believe that criminal activity is happening or about to happen. Courts usually find probable cause when law enforcement can show there is a reasonable basis to believe that:

Interpreting Probable Cause

The problem with probable cause is simply that the idea is open to interpretation. In general, if a law enforcement officer can show they had a “reasonable” belief that you 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 and doing nothing out of the ordinary, police can’t arrest you and search for a weapon, stolen property, or other contraband.

What the arresting officer believed at the time under the circumstances might be subject to different interpretations later in time and from a different vantage point. The courts must determine what a reasonable person would believe under the “totality of the circumstances” and weigh that against your Fourth Amendment protections.

Arrests Without Warrants

Having probable cause is especially important if the police do not have an arrest warrant or a search warrant but they arrest you 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 you allegedly stealing a car, they do not need a warrant to apprehend you. Probable cause has already been established by witnessing the crime. The same applies to drunk driving stops. If the officer believes that you are driving under the influence, they can engage in a warrantless arrest.

Searches Without Warrants

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 warrantless searches 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.

An Attorney Can Help if Police Violate Your Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court is always interpreting and reinterpreting the standards by which law enforcement and lower courts should interpret probable cause and decide challenges. Police must show they had probable cause to arrest you or search your property. But what qualifies as probable cause will depend on the specific facts of your case. Criminal justice is not an exact science and what constitutes good faith and reasonable belief will vary.

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.

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