What is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is a critical concept in criminal law that protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. In simple terms, probable cause refers to the level of evidence necessary for law enforcement officers to search, make an arrest, or obtain a warrant. A grand jury’s indictment must also be based on a finding of probable cause. Probable cause is a flexible concept determined by each case’s specific facts and circumstances.
Probable cause is a legal standard that refers to the level of evidence that is required for law enforcement officers to take specific actions. This standard is based on the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. The concept has been further developed through United States Supreme Court decisions, which have interpreted and applied the Fourth Amendment in specific cases.
Probable Cause Definition
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that searches and seizures be conducted only with a warrant that is supported by probable cause. Probable cause is defined as “a reasonable belief that a person has committed or is committing a crime.” It means there is a reasonable basis to believe that a crime has been committed and that the individual to be arrested or the property to be searched or seized is connected to that crime. Probable cause is based on specific and articulable facts, not on a mere hunch or suspicion. Although it requires that the police have more than just suspicion, it does not require absolute certainty that a suspect committed a crime.
Probable cause is a flexible standard that considers the totality of the circumstances. In other words, it is not based on any one factor but rather on a combination of factors that, when considered together, would lead a prudent person to believe that a person has committed or is committing a crime. These factors can include observations, such as the odor of drugs, drug paraphernalia, or the appearance of a suspect, information from informants or witnesses, and other relevant evidence. The United States Supreme Court has explained that probable cause is a practical, non-technical standard that calls upon the “factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men act.” See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983).
Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion
Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are legal standards of proof law enforcement officers use in the United States. Still, they differ in their level of certainty and the actions they permit.
Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause. It requires that the law enforcement officer have a reasonable individualized suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, that criminal activity is afoot and that the individual to be stopped or detained is connected to that illegal activity. Reasonable suspicion permits law enforcement officers to detain an individual for investigative purposes briefly or to conduct a limited search for weapons if the officer reasonably suspects that the individual is involved in criminal activity and poses a danger to the officer’s safety. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)
The terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion are often misunderstood and used interchangeably. Although both relate to a police officer’s assessment of a situation, they carry different implications for a person’s rights, the appropriate procedure, and the eventual outcome.
Reasonable suspicion serves as a precursor to probable cause, indicating that there may be reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime has occurred. As the evidence accumulates, reasonable suspicion may evolve into probable cause when it becomes clearer that a reasonable person would conclude that a crime is likely to occur. Probable cause for arrest requires more than just a suspicion of guilt, but less than would be required to prove the suspect guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Probable Cause for an Arrest
Florida law technically requires that an arrest warrant be issued by a judge or magistrate based on a finding of probable cause before an officer can make an arrest. That being said, there are so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that, practically speaking, the vast majority of arrests are warrantless arrests made by police officers based on probable cause alone.
To have probable cause to arrest in Florida, a police officer must have a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that the individual to be arrested has committed or is committing a crime. This belief must be more than a mere hunch or suspicion, and it must be based on evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the individual has committed or is committing a crime.
The evidence that supports a finding of probable cause for an arrest can come from various sources. It may come from observations made by the law enforcement officer, such as the sight of illegal activity or contraband. It may also come from information provided by witnesses, informants, or other sources of evidence.
Nonadversary Probable Cause Determination
Once an officer has probable cause to make an arrest, they can take the individual into custody and bring them before a judge or magistrate for a hearing. Florida law requires a judge to determine whether there is probable cause at the defendant’s first appearance. This is a nonadversary proceeding where the judge will evaluate the evidence presented by the officer and determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to continue holding the individual in custody. Florida requires that a probable cause determination be made by a judge within 48 hours of the arrest, except when a prior decision has been made and an arrest warrant issued. The judge can extend the proceeding for 24 hours under extraordinary circumstances.
Adversarial Preliminary Hearing
If a defendant is not charged in an information or indictment within 21 days of arrest for a felony charge, they have the right to an adversary preliminary hearing. Unlike a first appearance hearing, the State and the Defense can question witnesses and argue to the court in an adversary preliminary hearing. If the judge determines, based on the evidence, that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed an offense, they shall be held to answer to the charges. If there is no probable cause, the judge must release the defendant from custody. If the State has already filed charges, the judge must still release the defendant on their own recognizance (ROR) but will order them to appear at any subsequent court proceedings.
Probable Cause for a Search
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that searches and seizures be conducted only with a warrant supported by probable cause. Police officers must obtain a search warrant from a neutral and detached magistrate before conducting a search or seizure. This warrant must be based on probable cause, which means there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a specified place. For the judge to issue the warrant, they must necessarily find that the affidavit submitted by the law enforcement officer in their application for the warrant contains enough facts to support a finding of probable cause.
Certain exceptions to the warrant requirement allow officers to conduct a search or seizure without a warrant. Examples of exceptions to the warrant requirement include the “plain view” doctrine, the “exigent circumstances” exception, and the “search incident to arrest” exception.
However, while these exceptions allow for a search or seizure without a warrant, they do not eliminate the requirement for probable cause. Even under these exceptions, officers must have a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that sufficient evidence of a crime is present before conducting a search or seizure.
For example, under the “plain view” doctrine, officers may seize evidence in plain sight during a lawful interaction with an individual, such as a traffic stop. However, for the seizure to be lawful, the officer must have probable cause to believe that the item seized is evidence of a crime. Similarly, under the “exigent circumstances” exception, officers may conduct a warrantless search if there is a risk of immediate danger or destruction of evidence. However, even in this situation, the officer must have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is present.
The requirement of probable cause serves as a check on law enforcement officers’ power and helps prevent arbitrary or intrusive searches and seizures. It ensures that searches and seizures are only conducted on a legitimate basis.
Probable Cause and Suppression Hearings
A motion to suppress is a legal filing that seeks to exclude evidence obtained illegally or violating a defendant’s constitutional rights. Criminal defense lawyers file motions to suppress, asking the judge to exclude evidence or their clients’ statements because a search or arrest was not based on probable cause. A judge will determine whether there was probable cause by evaluating the totality of the circumstances considering all of the information that was available to the officer at the time the officer conducted the search or made the arrest.
If the judge finds probable cause at the suppression hearing, the search or arrest will be deemed valid and the motion denied. If the judge grants the motion based on finding no probable cause, the evidence obtained due to the search or arrest may be suppressed. This is referred to as the exclusionary rule and means that the evidence will be excluded from the trial, making it much more difficult for the prosecution to obtain a conviction.
Because the warrant requirement is intended to provide greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, appellate courts tend to apply a stricter rule in the appellate review of trial court decisions when evaluating the constitutionality of warrantless stops and searches. This preference for proceeding by warrant means that appellate courts are more likely to closely scrutinize the evidence and the reasoning used by law enforcement officers and trial courts in justifying a warrantless stop or search. Courts will sustain a probable cause ruling if there is a substantial basis for the magistrate’s conclusion.
Probable Cause in Other Contexts
In addition to searches and seizures, arrests, and warrants, a finding of probable cause is central in other criminal justice proceedings.
Grand Jury Indictment Based on Probable Cause
An indictment is a formal accusation of a crime issued by a grand jury based on the evidence presented to them by a prosecutor. For an indictment to be issued, the grand jury must find that there is probable cause to believe that the individual named in the indictment committed the crime.
Probable cause, in this context, means that there is a reasonable basis for believing that the individual committed the crime in question. This determination is made based on the evidence the prosecutor presented to the grand jury. There must be sufficient evidence to lead a reasonable person to believe that the individual committed the crime, and it must be more than a mere suspicion or hunch.
To establish probable cause for an indictment, the prosecutor will typically present evidence such as witness testimony, physical evidence, and other relevant information. The grand jury will then review the evidence and determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to issue an indictment.
Once an indictment is issued, the individual named in the indictment will be formally charged with the crime and typically be arraigned in court. At this point, the individual can enter a plea and begin preparing for trial.
Probable Cause in Forfeiture Proceedings
The concept of probable cause plays a significant role in forfeiture proceedings, which are legal proceedings in which the government seeks to seize property alleged to be involved in criminal activity.
In forfeiture proceedings, the government must establish probable cause that the property in question was either used to commit a crime or obtained through criminal activity proceeds. This means that the government must show that there is a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that the property is connected to criminal activity. The property owner or any other interested party can challenge the forfeiture and contest the government’s claim of probable cause.
Probable cause is a crucial element of criminal law in the United States that is implicated in various areas, including search and seizure, arrests, warrants, and grand jury indictments. If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, it is essential to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can evaluate the evidence against you and determine whether there was probable cause for the arrest or search. An attorney could file a motion to suppress evidence if there was no probable cause, potentially leading to excluding key evidence in your case. Contacting an attorney early in the criminal process can significantly impact your case’s outcome and protect your rights under the Fourth Amendment.
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