What is Probable Cause? 

 September 8, 2014

By  LMW Attorneys

Probable cause refers to any facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed. The Fourth Amendment protects our right to be free from searches and seizures that are unreasonable and states that no warrants shall be issued except upon probable cause. But what constitutes as probable cause is not clearly defined—this is where things get tricky.

What is Considered Probable Cause?

Defining what is and what isn’t probable cause can get complicated, but is best explained through examples. While every situation is different, here are some hypothetical scenarios where probable cause comes into play:
Scenario 1: An officer receives a call that there has been an armed robbery at a local bank. According to the bank teller, the robber was about 5’5” tall and 130 pounds and made off with $10,000, which he shoved into a large black bag. The officer leaves the bank and as he’s driving, sees a car running a red light. He pulls the car over and sees that the man meets the description of the robber and has a large black bag on the passenger seat. Because the man meets the description of the robber, the officer now has probable cause that he committed the crime and can search his car and hold him for further identification.
Scenario 2: James gets pulled over for driving with a taillight being out. The officer gives him a ticket for the faulty taillight but also notices a strong smell of marijuana coming from James’ car. He asks James if he can search his vehicle to which James agrees. Although the officer doesn’t have a warrant to search James’ car, he had probable cause and James gave the officer consent, which means he can legally search the entire vehicle.

Scenario 3: Consider the same scenario above; however, James does not give the officer consent to search his vehicle. The officer happens to have a drug-sniffing dog that becomes alerted immediately when he is by James’ car. The officer now has probable cause and searches James’ vehicle anyway and finds paraphernalia. Although James did not consent to a search, the strong smell of marijuana and the drug-sniffing dog being alerted are considered probable cause and allow the officer to legally search his vehicle.

Scenario 4: A young man is having a party at his home late one night. The noise level becomes bothersome for his neighbor who calls the police. The police show up at the house and tell the man the lower the noise level. While the police are on the porch, they notice paraphernalia through the front window. Although they don’t have a search warrant, the paraphernalia is in plain view so they can do a search of the home.

When to Call a Lawyer

Probable cause can be confusing because many times suspects do not know their rights or officers will make them feel as if they are obligated to consent to searches. However, unless there is appropriate probable cause, you always have the right to refuse searches. Knowing your rights and what does and does not constitute probable cause can benefit you greatly. Whatever your situation, you may always say that you wish to remain quiet and speak to your lawyer.

The lawyers at LMW Attorneys have the experience and appropriate legal knowledge to defend your rights. If you believe you were illegally searched or would like to learn more about probable cause, visit LMW Attorneys today.