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What Is Probable Cause?

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What Is Probable Cause?


Legalese sounds odd to the untrained ear. Certain phrases make sense to legal professionals, but they feel weird in casual speaking and writing. It’s easy to hear words that are used frequently and still have a hard time understanding exactly what they mean.

You've probably heard the term "probable cause" used in the news or legal shows, but it may be hard to pin down exactly what this phrase means. More importantly, it can be difficult to understand why probable cause is so important.

Law enforcement officials cannot accuse you without a reason. They need enough evidence to justify an arrest, conduct a search, or obtain a warrant. This evidence is called “probable cause.” The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires probable cause before police issue a warrant or conduct a search.

Probable cause can be small. It could be as simple as an officer seeing a swerving driver. This is enough probable cause to pull the driver over. Alternatively, probable cause can be enormously complex. Before arresting someone for financial fraud, for instance, police may conduct a thorough investigation that could take months or even years.

Without strong probable cause, authorities can easily lose their case against a suspect. Even if the police are right about their accusations, a case could be thrown out if the arrest had weak probable cause.

Here are some examples of how probable cause can lead to searches. If you are facing criminal charges, these examples may apply to your case. Even if you are not facing any criminal allegations, you should take this information seriously, as it could help protect you against civil rights violations in the future.

The Role of Probable Cause in a Property Search

Probable cause plays a critical role in property searches. Law enforcement must have sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed, and the property is likely to contain evidence of the crime.

For example, imagine the police believe that someone is selling drugs out of their house, and they want a search warrant. To obtain the warrant, the police must convince a judge that they have probable cause. Evidence may include surveillance footage, witness statements, communication records, or other relevant information. If the judge finds that probable cause exists, they may issue a warrant that allows law enforcement to search the property.

Without probable cause, any search of your property is considered unreasonable and a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.

Probable Cause in a Vehicle Search

Probable cause is equally important in a vehicle search. While not as important as your home, your car is still private property, and the police cannot simply rummage through it for no reason.

First, officers must have probable cause to stop a car. For instance, if someone is driving erratically, an officer would have probable cause to pull that driver over. If the officer then sees something illegal through the window, they would have probable cause to search the rest of the vehicle.

If the police do not have probable cause to search your car, and you do not consent to a search, then legally, they have no right to go through your vehicle. Any evidence collected in this situation cannot be used against you in court.

Make sure to talk to an attorney whenever the police rifle through your car. If there are Fourth Amendment violations present, your attorney may be able to spot them and hold the offending officers accountable.

Challenging Probable Cause in Court

To challenge an officer’s probable cause, your attorney must question the evidence itself. They will attempt to prove that it was invalid, incomplete, biased, etc.

Your lawyer must present evidence and arguments that prove that probable cause was not present in your case. If successful, challenging probable cause can result in the suppression of evidence. This means that the evidence leading up to a wrongful search or arrest will be removed from the case. Sometimes, a lack of probable cause will force the judge to completely throw a case out.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of a wrongful search or arrest, contact Law Offices of Kenneth A. Stover at (775) 502-1575 or fill out our online form. We may be able to schedule a free case consultation with you right away.

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