The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects your right to privacy in your home and private property. Police officers must have probable cause to conduct a search or arrest someone. Without probable cause, the evidence obtained during an illegal search, seizure, or arrest could be inadmissible in court.
Probable cause applies in all types of criminal cases, including drug possession, sex crimes, and DUI cases. Understanding your legal rights can help when you are stopped, questioned, or detained by police officers.
Table of Contents
When Do Police Officers Have Probable Cause for an Arrest or Search?
Probable cause is more than a hunch or vague feeling that a crime is being committed or was committed.
Instead, probable cause requires a law enforcement officer to have a reasonable suspicion that someone:
- Has committed a crime;
- Is committing a crime; or
- Is about to commit a crime.
Probable cause is based on specific facts relevant to the situation. The facts must have led the officer to reasonably believe that the subject is guilty of committing a crime or is in the process of breaking the law. Generalizations may result in the court finding a lack of probable cause. If a case lacks probable cause, the court is likely to throw out the evidence or dismiss the criminal charges.
Defining Reasonable Suspicion for Probable Cause
Reasonable suspicion requires the officer to make specific “reasonable” inferences that he can draw from the facts of the situation in light of the officer’s experience. In other words, the officer may develop reasonable suspicion by observing a person’s conduct and behavior and using common sense.
When an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a crime was or is about to be committed, the police officer may stop, search, and detain the person. The procedure is known as a Terry stop based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Terry vs. Ohio. Police officers use a Terry stop to obtain evidence that gives them probable cause for an arrest.
Without probable cause, a police officer cannot execute an arrest without an arrest warrant. When seeking an arrest warrant or search warrant, the police officer must present sufficient evidence to convince a judge that probable cause exists for issuing the warrant.
Police officers may believe they have probable cause for an arrest or search. However, the judge has the sole discretion to determine whether probable cause exists to justify an arrest or search.
Exigent Circumstances to Allow Warrantless Searches
A police officer may conduct a search without a warrant in some cases. Exigent circumstances allow the police to enter a home without a search warrant.
Exigent circumstances include:
- Providing emergency aid
- Preventing physical harm to the officers or others
- Preventing destruction of evidence
- Hot pursuit of a suspect
The plain view doctrine limits searches under exigent circumstances.
When police officers enter a home without a search warrant, they must comply with the plain view doctrine. Police officers can only seize evidence that is in plain view. The police officers do not have the right to look through closets, cabinets, or personal items.
Unfortunately, sometimes police officers abuse the “exigent circumstances” exception to conduct unlawful searches and seizures. They also ignore the plain view doctrine by opening drawers and going through closed areas when a person is not looking.
If an officer tries to search your home without a warrant, do not consent. Instead, state that you do not consent to the search, but do not resist. Resisting could cause the situation to escalate. Contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to discuss how to enforce your civil rights regarding the illegal search.
You Can Challenge Probable Cause in a Criminal Case
Making an unlawful arrest or conducting an illegal search violates your constitutional rights. If you believe that the police officer lacked probable cause for an arrest, your attorney can file a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause. You can challenge the legal grounds and factual basis for probable cause.
After an arrest, contact a Cincinnati criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney will investigate the circumstances of your arrest to determine if law enforcement officers or the prosecutor violated your civil rights. A lawyer will also protect your legal right to a fair outcome in your criminal case.