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What is Probable Cause?

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Many people ask, “What is probable cause?” Probable cause in Texas is a legal term that, in its simplest form, means that a certain circumstance occurred more probably than not. For instance, to arrest an individual, law enforcement must believe that it’s probable that he or she committed a crime. Probable cause is the standard of proof that’s applicable for an arrest, warrant, search, and seizure.

The premise of probable cause is derived from the U.S. Constitution Fourth Amendment. In particular, the Constitution states that the government may only proceed to arrest and seize property on showing probable cause.

The standard of probable cause in Texas is applicable to the prosecutor, too. Sufficient evidence against the individual to support probable cause must exist for the prosecutor to bring a criminal case. Of course, the defendant can’t be convicted of any crime without the showing of reasonable doubt.

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Probable Cause and Arrests

As discussed above, a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to arrest a certain person for a crime. Circumstances and specific facts must exist to prompt a reasonable person to believe that it’s probable that the suspect committed a crime—or is about to commit a crime:

  • A law enforcement officer must not arrest an individual if the officer’s evidence is merely a suspicion or hunch.
  • There’s an important difference between detention and arrest:

1. Detention involves a brief stop by a police officer to question an individual about the possibility of criminal activity. An officer must have a reasonable suspicion to detain an individual. A lower standard (than probable cause) is required to detain a person.

2. Reasonable suspicion means that a reasonable individual would have a suspicion that the detained individual committed or was about to commit a crime.

3. A detained individual may be arrested if, after a brief investigation, an officer has probable cause. If the officer doesn’t develop the standard of probable cause within a reasonable time, he or she must tell the detainee to leave.

If you or someone you care about has been arrested or is facing criminal charges, probable cause is likely to be among your most pressing questions. In many instances, legal authorities aren’t permitted to take any action without the establishment of probable cause.

Probable Cause for Search

For law enforcement to search a residence, probable cause must exist that officers will find evidence of a crime within the home. The following reasons justify law enforcement’s search of a house:

  • Law enforcement officers obtained consent from the individual living at the premises (or in charge of the residence)
  • Searches incident to law enforcement’s making a lawful arrest
  • An emergency situation or situations exist that may affect another person’s life
  • The police have obtained a search warrant prior to the arrival at the home

If law enforcement finds evidence relating to a crime at the residence in any of the above conditions, it’s legal to seize evidence. That evidence remains in custody of the police until the case is resolved.

A specific quality and amount of evidence are required before law enforcement officials may proceed to arrest, search, or seize another’s property or charge any suspected individual with a crime. The officer must reasonably believe that the individual to be arrested committed a crime, that there’s probable cause to believe that he or she committed a crime at the specific location to be searched, and that the location contains contraband or evidence relating to a crime.

Failure to demonstrate probable cause

Importantly, the failure of law enforcement to demonstrate probable cause may result in the court’s dismissal of critical evidence or criminal charges. A prosecutor is required to have probable cause before filing criminal charges against any suspect.

Obtaining a Warrant

A law enforcement officer signs an affidavit outlining probable cause for arresting a specific individual, conducting a search, or seizing the personal property of an individual or entity. If the judge believes that probable cause is established, he or she issues the warrant.

A warrant isn’t required if the law enforcement professional witnesses a felony crime. However, it’s still necessary to establish probable cause for any suspect(s) may be charged with the commission of a crime.

Legal Standard of Probable Cause

A law enforcement officer can make an arrest when he or she is confronted by circumstances or facts that lead a “reasonable individual” to determine that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed.

In the state of Texas, no statute specifically defines probable cause. This is surprising to many defendants, considering that probable cause is a needed prerequisite for any legitimate arrest in and around Houston, Texas, and throughout the United States.

Since the Texas Penal Code does not provide a clear definition of probable cause, let’s review examples of how and when probable cause may come into play:

  •  Officer M drives to a grocery store because the owner made a “911” call to inform police of a robbery. The officer sees broken glass in the store. The individual who identifies himself as the owner walks over to Officer M. He has a set of keys which he says are the store keys. He appears upset. The man tells Officer M that a male wearing a green jacket and mirror sunglasses robbed the store at gunpoint and left with the cash in the registers. Several moments later, Officer M receives a dispatch that a grocery store several miles up the road is being robbed. Officer M leaves and pulls over a car for speeding. The driver matches the description of the alleged robber. On the passenger’s seat is an envelope of money. Although Officer M didn’t witness the robbery, the driver’s description and other items in the vehicle look like stolen contraband. Officer M has probable cause to arrest the individual in Texas.
  • Let’s imagine that Officer M pulls over a driver that doesn’t match the description of the alleged robber. The driver isn’t wearing sunglasses and wears a black jacket. No envelope of money is visible. In this example, Officer M doesn’t have probable cause to arrest the driver. He doesn’t have sufficient probable cause to arrest the driver of the grocery store robbery, but he may arrest the driver for a traffic offense if he was driving about the speed limit, etc. A traffic stop isn’t considered probable cause.

In Texas, the officer must reasonably believe that a certain person committed or is in the act of committing a crime. Based on these facts, the officer would unreasonably determine that the driver was the same person who robbed the grocery store.

How much information is needed to equal probable cause?

Generally speaking, the law enforcement officer must have more than a hunch or suspicion that a person committed a crime. However, he or she doesn’t need as much information or evidence as would be necessary to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Probable cause is an abstract concept of law. The finite definition of probable cause is evasive. Courts must determine whether sufficient probable cause was available for an arrest on a case by case basis.

What Probable Cause Means to You

Although certain scenarios require the police to obtain a warrant to search your person or property, a law enforcement officer needs only probable cause to make a legal search of your motor vehicle.

The primary exception to the probable cause rule in a vehicle search is consent. Many vehicles aren’t searched by law enforcement because probable cause doesn’t exist.

However, if the driver is intimidated or tricked into allowing the officer to make the search, he or she is legally allowed to do so:

  • When the driver consents to the officer’s desire to search the vehicle, it’s automatically legal in terms of the law.
  • The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mandate the officer to inform you of your legal right to refuse the search.
  • If you’re pulled over, know you have the right to refuse his or her search request. Say, “Officer, I do not consent to this or any search.” Say this more than once if necessary.
  • If you refuse the officer’s search but he or she proceeds to search anyway, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney. He will file a motion to suppress or toss out the evidence.
  • If a judge agrees that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment’s requirements to determine probable cause, the motion will be granted.
  • Unless the prosecutor has additional incriminating evidence, the judge is likely to dismiss the charges against you.

Establishment of probable cause

A judge, not law enforcement officers, has the last word concerning the establishment of probable cause. A police officer might sincerely believe that the facts of the case established probable cause. However, if a judge reviews the same information and doesn’t agree, probable cause doesn’t or didn’t exist.

Probable cause might have existed at the time the defendant was arrested even if he or she did nothing wrong. In other words, the arrest would be valid if it was based on probable cause—even if the court and/or jury determines the defendant is innocent.

Get an Initial Case Evaluation from a Certified Criminal Lawyer in Houston, TX

Probable cause is considered one of the essential concepts of criminal law. Knowing whether the actions made by law enforcement are supported by probable cause in Texas depends on the specific facts of your case. Learn more about the relevance of probable cause by requesting an initial case evaluation. Contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky in Houston at 713-227-0087.

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