Probable cause is the most important aspect of any police stop that leads to search, seizure of property, or arrest. In order to arrest a suspect, the circumstances must meet the standards of probable cause. What probable cause is an who ultimately decides what can be considered probable cause is often debated. In some cases, it can be argued that probable cause did not exist.

The Definition of Probable Cause

Probable cause is a concept derived from the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which reads as follows:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be searched.”

Probable cause is a requirement before police may intervene in any situation where they suspect a crime has been committed. It is designed to protect people from being “hassled”, so to speak, when no clear evidence is present.

Probable Cause and Searches

In many cases, searches require a warrant. When it comes to probable cause, a warrant is not always necessary. Searches that can be considered an emergency due to loss of evidence or serious danger (i.e., the search of a trunk of a car if the officer believes a kidnapping victim is inside), searches pertinent to a lawful arrest, searches conducted with consent, and searches conducted based on evidence or contraband in plain sight are all legal without a warrant.

Probable Cause and Seizure of Property

Police are allowed to take anything that is clearly contraband. If probable cause pertains to threat and the officer happens to see or discover the stolen property while interacting with the suspect, he or she can recover that property. When a warrant is necessary for the search, the officer can and often will take all contraband discovered during this search. If the search is deemed illegal, a judge will hear the defense and will sometimes exclude some of the evidence produced by that search.

Probable Cause and Arrest

The standard for what constitutes probable cause can be a bit murky at times. The law requires that the officer have more than a “gut feeling” that the individual in question committed a crime. Usually, probable cause for arrest requires some type of evidence. This evidence is usually found after the individual is searched, either by consenting to their search or by being briefly detained until the officer obtains a warrant.

What Circumstances Constitute Probable Cause?

A police officer receives a call from a convenience store owner. He store owner claims he was robbed by a man who was six feet tall with shoulder length red hair and a large tribal tattoo on his chest. The man in question stole all the money from the register and ten cartons of cigarettes. The store owner saw the man drive away in a silver sedan. Half a mile from the scene, the officer sees a six foot tall man with shoulder length red hair and a large tribal tattoo on his chest in a silver sedan with ten cartons of cigarettes in plain view in the back seat. The officer has probable cause to search and arrest the individual.

This is an example of probable cause when it is known that a crime has been committed and the criminal can easily be identified. There are other cases where probable cause can lead to arrest in an unreported crime. If an officer sees someone carrying drugs or other contraband in plain view, or if an officer sees someone covered in someone else’s blood, these are both valid reasons for a probable cause stop, search, or arrest.

Circumstances That Do Not Constitute Probable Cause

A broken tail light, expired tags, speeding, failure to use a turn signal, or other minor traffic violations do not constitute probable cause. Unless you have an open container of alcohol in the vehicle or appear to be under the influence, these scenarios should be treated as routine traffic stops. During a routine traffic stop, the officer does not have probable cause unless contraband is clearly visible within the vehicle. The officer cannot search a vehicle or detain a suspect without enough criteria for probable cause. Reasonable suspicion on its own is not enough. 

The Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?

Reasonable suspicion is the precursor to probable cause in the event that the officer discovers something that complicates a situation. Reasonable suspicion simply means that the officer has spotted something suspicion that could lead to the reasonable conjecture that a crime was about to take place, is currently taking place, or has recently taken place.

On a reasonable suspicion stop, the officer can look (but not search) for evidence that supports the perceived circumstances. The only exception for searches is if the individual in question was stopped on reasonable suspicion for a violent crime involving the use of a weapon. Then, the officer may pat the suspect down in an effort to detect said weapon on his or her person. If he or she does not find anything, the officer cannot detain or arrest the suspect. If something is glaringly visible or the suspect admits wrongdoing, reasonable suspicion becomes probable cause.

The Authority on Probable Cause

Since probable cause is somewhat open to interpretation, officers don’t have the final say on what constitutes probable cause. That responsibility belongs to a judge. The courts will determine whether or not the officer who searched, seized, or arrested the person in question legitimately had probable cause. A judge can disagree with an officer’s conclusion of probable cause.

Sometimes, like in classic “wrong place, wrong time” scenarios, probable cause does exist even though the individual did not commit the crime. An experienced attorney will be able to argue whether or not probable cause did exist, and even if it did, that attorney can help to defend the individual accused of the crime.

Securing Competent Representation

The Damianakos Law Firm is headed by Elias Damianakos, a former Arizona prosecutor with 15 years of experience. We have a thorough understanding of how the law works on both sides. If you believe you were arrested without true probable cause, we’re here to review the details of your case. Before you speak to law enforcement, contact us for a free consultation. We will review the facts and circumstances and use them to build the best possible defense for you.