What is Probable Cause?

Police Officer and Driver Probable cause is a legal term of art. Basically, it means that the police must have an objective reason that they suspect you of committing a crime. Probable cause is a requirement to make an arrest or obtain a warrant from a judge. It is also a requirement for search and seizure as well.

If the officer does not have probable cause and he or she arrests, detains, or searches you anyway, then the officer has violated your legal rights. If you do not think probable cause existed when you were arrested, detained, or searched, then you need to speak with a criminal defense attorney immediately. He or she can help you assert your basic rights in this area of the law.

Probable Cause in Arrest Situations

A police officer must be able to cite specific information that indicates to him or her that you have committed a crime. They cannot arrest you on a “gut feeling” or a “hunch.” They must have hard evidence to support the basis for an arrest.

Probable cause can exist even if you did not do anything wrong. If, for example, you look like someone who recently committed a crime, drive a similar car, and have robbery equipment (like a ski mask) in your possession, then the police might determine that probable cause exists for an arrest. While these attributes or characteristics are innocent, when they are put together, they paint a different picture.

The judge is actually the one who determines whether there was probable cause for an arrest. The judge will consider all of the facts of the situation and make a decision. The judge’s function is to be an objective third party. Sometimes police officers can become so caught up in their investigation that they want to believe someone has committed a crime. Judges attempt to keep officers in check by evaluating the evidence presented from a legal perspective.

You can challenge whether the officer had probable cause at the time of the arrest in front of a judge. Your criminal defense attorney will help you with this process.

Probable Cause of a Search and Seizure

Police cannot just stop and search every person that they see. They must have a reason to stop you—probable cause. This reason should be that you are either a threat to the safety of the officer or you are holding or have evidence of a crime.

The protections for search and seizure are based on the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment only protects against searches that are “unreasonable,” however. That means that the police can search whatever they want, with a number of exceptions, as long as they have a reason or probable cause.

Because search and seizure laws are based on privacy, you must first show that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy to prevent the search. For example, most people have a reasonable expectation of privacy within their home. That is why the police have to have probable cause and a warrant to search your home.

You do not have protection from search and seizure when you have no privacy expectation. If, for example, you have a marijuana plant growing in your yard and it can be clearly seen from the street, you have no expectation of privacy regarding that plant. The police and enter your yard, seize the plant, and arrest you (because they now have probable cause for the arrest as well).

Arrests or Searches Performed Without Probable Cause

Because of the importance of probable cause, police face serious consequences if they take action without probable cause. Perhaps the most serious consequence is that any evidence found or testimony taken cannot be used in court. This is known as the “exclusionary rule.”

In addition, if the officer found additional evidence because of their action that was not supported by probable cause, they cannot use that in court either. This doctrine is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.” The argument is that if the officer had not violated your rights, he or she would not have the information or evidence. Therefore, that evidence is excluded as well. It is sometimes referred to as being “tainted.” If the evidence, testimony, or information could have been obtained from a different source, however, it may still be admitted.

How Your Lawyer Can Use Probable Cause as a Defense

Many criminal defense lawyers will argue that a search or arrest was invalid so that they can force the state to throw out evidence against you. This is an important part of the defense process in many cases. You have legal rights in the criminal process, and the state knows that there are consequences if those rights are violated.

If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, you need a criminal defense attorney in Fairfax, VA. Contact the Law Office of Wilfred W. Yeargan by sending us a message online or by giving us a call today to discuss your case and schedule a free consultation.

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