What Constitutes Probable Cause?
“Probable cause”, as it relates to criminal justice, typically refers to the legal requirement that police officers have adequate reason to arrest an individual, conduct a search, or seize property relating to an alleged crime.
Police officers must also have probable cause to arrest someone without a warrant, and in many cases to search or seize property without a warrant as well. Finally, a prosecuting attorney must have probable cause to charge a suspect with a crime.
But what exactly does probable cause look like in a given situation? Here are some examples of how probable cause applies in various scenarios:
To Be Arrested
If a police officer has direct knowledge that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime – that constitutes probable cause for an arrest.
However, a police officer may temporarily detain a suspect without probable cause. Temporary detention only requires an officer to have “reasonable suspicion”, which means specific facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe criminal activity was at hand and further investigation was required.
To Conduct A Search
Similar to the requirement for making an arrest, police officers must have information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed at the place to be searched. Or, that evidence of a crime exists at a specific location.
While search warrants are sometimes required, there are many instances when they are not. Common examples of when police can conduct a search without a warrant, based on probable cause, include:
- When they have consent from the person in charge of the premises
- When conducting certain searches related to a lawful arrest
- In emergency situations which threaten public safety or the loss of evidence
Police also do not need a warrant to search and/or seize illegal contraband “in plain sight” if the officer has a right to be present.
To Seize Property
Police have probable cause to seize property when they have knowledge of facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that an item is contraband, stolen, or constitutes evidence of a crime.
When executing a search warrant, police must search only for the items described in the warrant. However, any other illegal items or evidence of other crimes they find may, for the most part, be seized as well.
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