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What is Probable Cause?

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In its most basic form, probable cause means that it is more probable than not that a particular circumstance occurred. For example, in order to arrest a person, the police must believe that it is more probable than not that the person committed a crime. Probable cause remains the initial standard of proof that applies for arrests, warrants, searches and seizures.

The roots of probable cause come from the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Specifically, the Constitution requires that the government may only arrest and seize property upon a showing of probable cause.

The probable cause standard applies to prosecutors as well. For prosecutors to pursue a criminal case, enough evidence against a person must exist to support a finding of probable cause. It should be noted that a person may not be convicted of a crime without a showing of reasonable doubt.

Probable Cause as Applied to Arrests

As described above, an officer must develop probable cause to arrest a particular person for a crime. Facts and circumstances need to exist that would cause a reasonable person with the officer’s knowledge and experience to believe that it is more probable than not that a suspect committed a crime or is about to commit a crime. An officer may not arrest another person if the officer’s only “evidence” consists of a hunch or suspicions.

A difference exists between a “detention” and an “arrest.” A detention consists of a short stop by an officer to question a person about possible criminal activity. For a detention, the police must only have “reasonable suspicion.” This is a much lower standard than probable cause. Reasonable suspicion only means that a reasonable person would suspect that a crime was committed.

A detention may become an arrest if through the brief investigation the officer develops probable cause. If the officer does not develop probable cause within a reasonable period of time, the officer must allow the person to leave.

Probable Cause for Searches

For the police to search a house, probable cause needs to exist that evidence of a crime will exist in the home. Any of the following reasons will legally justify the police searching a house:

  • Consent of a person who lives at the premises or is in charge of the home
  • Searches incident to a lawful arrest
  • Emergency situations which may affect someone’s life
  • The police obtained a search warrant

If during any of the above situations, the police find evidence that relates to a crime, then they may seize that evidence. The evidence will remain in police property until the end of the case.

For a free consultation regarding probable cause, reach out to the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky at 713-227-0087.

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