As you may know, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures of their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” However, police are allowed to search and seize property by proving that there was probable cause to do so. 

Probable cause generally refers to the criminal procedure requirement that the police demonstrate that they have a reasonable belief that a person has committed or will commit a crime, before a warrant is issued for a person’s arrest or to search or seize a person’s property.

Probable cause exists when a police officer has sufficient knowledge of facts to warrant a belief that a suspect is committing or has committed a crime. In general, probable cause requires more than a mere suspicion that a suspect committed a crime, but not enough information to prove that the person is guilty of a crime (beyond a reasonable doubt). The belief must be based on factual evidence, not just on suspicion. 

Generally, the court issuing the warrant employs a test to determine whether probable cause exist. This test is whether an objective person of reasonable intelligence would believe that the circumstances indicate that the person arrested or detained has committed or is in the process of committing a crime. Additionally, in the situations where police officers are allowed to make a warrantless arrest, or conduct a warrantless search or seizure, probable cause is still required. 

What are the Sources of Probable Cause?

As mentioned above, in order to effectuate an arrest, or search or seize property, an officer must prove probable cause to a judge or magistrate. There are four general categories of evidence that an officer may rely on in establishing probable cause. 

Evidence from any of the four categories below would allow an officer to perform a lawful arrest or perform a search:

  • Observation: Any information obtained by an officer through observation may be used to establish probable cause. Common examples of probable cause based on observation includes anything in the “plain view” or “plain smell” of an officer, or anything else based on what an officer sees, hears, smells, or feels. Additionally, police dogs in some cases may also conduct searches wherein the evidence discovered is admissible;
  • Circumstantial Evidence: An officer may also rely on indirect evidence that implies something has occurred, but does not directly prove it. For example, an officer responding to a robbery may have probable cause of arresting or searching a person found hiding in an alleyway or running away from the scene with bags in hand. Although that the evidence of the person fleeing might not directly prove they committed the robbery, the circumstantial evidence provides probable cause for an officer to conduct a search;
  • Expertise: An officer may also use their expertise and training to identify certain movements, gestures, preparations, or tools as tending to indicate criminal activity. For instance, an officer may use their expertise on drug paraphernalia to establish probable cause that the items may have been used in relation to drug crimes; and
  • Information: An officer may use information that they obtained from reliable sources to establish probable cause. Information may include: statements by witnesses or victims, receiving information from an informant, or responding to a call made on a police scanner/radio. Recently, information obtained from an informant has been scrutinized by the Courts, especially when the information was obtained through an anonymous tip. 

Additionally, a person may consent to the search of their person or property, in which case probable cause is automatically created. However, the area of the search is limited based upon the consent given. Further, in cases where a roommate or resident gives consent to search a home, an officer may not search places that the person who gave consent would not have access to, or continue to search a premises upon the objection by the non-consenting party. 

Evidence directly obtained as a result of a search, seizure, or arrest that occurred without probable cause cannot be used in court against a defendant charged with the commission of a crime. Thus, if a search or arrest was made with or without a warrant, and probable cause was not sufficiently established, the evidence obtained without probable cause may be suppressed in court. 

When can a Legal Search, Seizure, or Arrest Occur?

As noted above, probable cause must exist before a search, seizure, or arrest by law enforcement. Further, search warrants and arrest warrants are only issued upon a finding of probable cause by a judge or magistrate. Warrantless searches or arrests must also meet the standard of probable cause to be admissible in court.

However, the motor vehicle is exempt from the search warrant requirement. This means that police may search a motor vehicle without a warrant, but probable cause is still needed. Therefore, the police can search any part of the vehicle as long as they have probable cause that they will find contraband or evidence of a crime. This includes any containers inside the motor vehicle, such as glove boxes or the trunk of the vehicle. Further, police may conduct what is referred to as a “terry stop,” search of the person stopped based only on a reasonable suspicion. 

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with a Probable Cause Search Issue?

If you find yourself in a situation where you were searched, accused of a crime, or arrested, it can be a complex situation. If you do not believe that an officer had probable cause to do so you should immediately consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal attorney in your area. 

An experienced criminal attorney will inform you of your rights and defenses to the search or arrest, as well as help you suppress evidence and represent you in front of a court of law, if necessary.