Probable cause restricts the right of police officers to search your home, search your car, or arrest you without obtaining a certain amount of evidence in advance. Since the concept of probable cause is based on the United States Constitution, it applies everywhere in the United States. In a best-case scenario, the prosecutor might drop all charges because the police lacked probable cause to gather the evidence against you.
Table of Contents
What Is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is enough evidence to convince a “reasonable person ” that a crime is in the process of being committed, has already been committed, or is going to be committed. The weight of evidence needed to justify probable cause does not have to be enough to convict you. Probable cause does, however, give the police a much wider range of options in dealing with you.
Probable Cause To Search Your Car
To search your car, the police must first have probable cause to pull you over in the first place. Once they pull you over, they can search your car without a warrant if they have:
- Probable cause to arrest you. In this situation, they can search only within your arm’s reach (the glove box but not the trunk, for example). The purpose is to take away any weapon you might have.
- Probable cause to believe your car contains a weapon or evidence of a crime.
- Something illegal is in plain view of the officer from outside the car (this will justify seizing the item and arresting you). This is known as the “plain view” doctrine.
- Your consent to a search of your car.
If the police arrest you and impound your car, as is typical after a DUI arrest, they can also perform an inventory search of your entire vehicle.
Probable Cause To Search Your Home
The police need a stronger justification to search your home than they do to search your car or your pockets.
The Warrant Requirement
Unless an exception applies, the police need a written warrant to search your home. The police obtain warrants from a magistrate (judge), who will decide whether to grant the warrant based on evidence the police provide. If the magistrate believes that the evidence amounts to probable cause that your home contains evidence of a crime, they will issue a search warrant.
Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement
There are many exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the following:
- You consent to the search of your home. Be careful—your consent does not have to be verbal. The police might construe even a nod of your head as consent.
- The plain view doctrine. If the police knock on your front door, you open it, and something obviously illegal (a bag of white powder and some scales, for example), the police can seize it.
- The police arrest you at your home. The police can search the area within your arm’s reach for weapons and contraband.
- An emergency situation. The police hear a gunshot fired from inside your home, someone screams, or someone they are pursuing ducks into your home (whether it is you or someone else).
In many cases, whether one of these exceptions should apply is a key issue.
Probable Cause To Arrest You
To arrest you, the police must have probable cause that you have committed a crime. For example, they might give you a field sobriety test to gain probable cause to arrest you for DUI. After arresting you, the police can also perform a “search incident to a lawful arrest.” The purpose of the search is to seize any weapons you might have. However, if the police search for weapons and find drugs instead, they can still file drug charges against you.
Contrast With “Reasonable Suspicion”
“Reasonable suspicion” is the standard for conducting a “stop and frisk.” If the officer reasonably suspects that you are armed and dangerous, they may search your person, including your clothing, for weapons. If they find drugs instead, they can arrest you for drugs. If they find evidence amounting to probable cause for arrest, they can arrest you.
“Reasonable suspicion” is an easier standard for the police to meet than probable cause, and there is no need for a warrant. Unfortunately, no one can tell you exactly what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” in a given situation. It depends on the “totality of the circumstances.”
The Exclusionary Rule
The exclusionary rule is a principle of constitutional law that applies throughout the United States. Under the exclusionary rule, the prosecution cannot use illegally seized evidence against you in court. This rule results in many acquittals of defendants with otherwise solid evidence against them.
The “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Doctrine
Suppose the police pull you over for no good reason (you’re playing heavy metal on your car stereo, for example). They discover that you are intoxicated. They search you incident to a DUI arrest and find a small amount of cocaine in your pocket. They then use the cocaine to secure a warrant to search your home, where they discover a pound of cocaine.
Because the original traffic stop was illegal, all evidence seized later is “fruit of the poisonous tree.” The exclusionary rule then kicks in to prevent the prosecution from using it against you in court.
Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Have you been charged with a crime? If you suspect that the police arrested you and searched you or your car without probable cause, contact Suhre & Associates, LLC criminal defense lawyer immediately at (859) 569-4014. No matter how strong the evidence against you might be, you could walk free if the evidence against you was seized without probable cause.