Probable Cause

Probable cause is required to arrest and prosecute a person in a Florida criminal court. Criminal and constitutional law also stipulate probable cause is necessary to conduct searches or seize property that is believed to be have been involved in an alleged crime.

How is probable cause defined?

The NOLO Plain-English Law Dictionary defines probable cause as “the amount and quality of information police must have before they can search or arrest without a warrant.” Probable cause must be based on evidence. It must be articulated in such a way that any “reasonable” person would believe the charge to be true.

How Probable Cause Protects Citizens 

The intent of the probable cause principle is to protect citizens from facing undue violations of civil rights. Probable cause acts as the basis for searches conducted by law enforcement. Prosecutors cannot proceed with criminal charges or prosecute an individual in court without demonstrating probable cause to a judge.

In this way, citizens should be protected from being:

  • searched;
  • arrested; and
  • detained based upon an unsubstantiated “hunch” and utter lack of evidence. 

Exceptions to Probable Cause

Like most criminal laws, there are some exceptions to the probable cause requirement. One specific example gives police officers leeway to conduct a limited search of a person whom they suspect has committed a crime.

This “reasonable suspicion” exception applies in public places and allows for a limited detainment (aka detention). To proceed with an arrest, however, the officer must come into possession of knowledge or evidence that would lead to probable cause.

Probable cause does not mean that there is no level of doubt about a person’s guilt or innocence. It only requires that there is a reasonable, based-on-fact cause to believe a person has committed a crime.

How Probable Cause Factors into Warrants

In most cases, a court will issue a warrant based upon a police officer’s written affidavit or statement. This official record must state facts that give compelling reason to make an arrest or to conduct a search or seize property. It is the judge’s ethical and professional duty to sign warrants only in cases where probable cause has been shown.

An arrest can occur in some cases without a warrant such as when an officer witnesses a crime taking place. Examples might include an assault on the street or a robbery in progress. In these cases, it is still necessary to demonstrate probable cause after the fact. Without it, the prosecution cannot proceed with a trial.

Origins of Probable Cause

Probable cause is a legal mandate that has been argued and upheld numerous times by the U.S. Supreme Court. The term is found in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment seeks to protect citizens’ right to privacy and freedom. It does this by asserting that people have the right to be safe from having “their persons, houses, papers, and effects” subject to “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Further, the document calls for probable cause to issue warrants.

Those who believe their Fourth Amendment rights to probable cause have been violated may wish to contact a criminal defense attorney. Call (877) 663-5110.

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