Police officers and agents of the government must have probable cause in order to carry out searchers, seizures of evidence, and arrest. The same goes for obtaining search and arrest warrants. Probable cause serves as a legal safeguard to ensure that law enforcement officers interfere with an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights only under limited circumstances, and through specific methods.
Probable cause goes beyond suspicion; police officers and governmental agents must be able to point to objective circumstances leading them to believe that a suspect committed a crime before acting. Searching an individual merely because an officer harbors a suspicion or a hunch, based on any number of factors such as racial profiling, associating an individual with known trouble-makers, or because they observe a stranger walking around a neighborhood late at night, is unlikely to substantiate probable cause.
There are workarounds, however. A search of an individual following an arrest that yields evidence of illegal activity in an unrelated matter is typically lawful. For example, if you are arrested for domestic violence where probable cause has been established, the police officer has the right to search you incident to the arrest. If he or she happens to find drugs on your person, you may also be charged for drug possession even though probable cause was not specifically established for possession of drugs. By extension, officers can intentionally arrest an individual with probable cause for a minor crime, enabling them to conduct a legal search for evidence in a more serious crime. The fact that the real motive for the arrest was the hope of finding evidence of another crime is likely permissible.
Sometimes an officer believes there is probable cause for a search after receiving a tip from an informant. In circumstances involving an ‘unknown’ informant, there may be a problem with the search if the informant did not (a) personally witness illegal activity, (b) there is no history to support the reliability of the source and (c) the officer had no other objective reason. Conversely, if a ‘reliable’ source flags down a police officer with a first hand account of a crime and the officer observes activity consistent with the informant’s account, probable cause can probably be established to carry out a search, seizure or arrest.
To obtain a warrant, law enforcement officers must show that there is probable cause to believe a search is justified supported with sworn statements and a detailed description of the place they will search and the items they will seize. There are times when an officer or agent may endeavor to discover evidence outside the parameters of what is allowed. Say, for example, you are a governmental housing inspector conducting a routine search of a building for safety hazards. Probable cause in this context does not require safety inspectors to have reason to believe they will find evidence of a crime; the state’s need to protect the public against safety threats posed by building defects establishes probable cause for routine inspections. However, the probable cause does not extend to snooping around for evidence not related to building defects. If the agent uses the inspection as a pretext to search for evidence of illegal activity in a tenant’s personal belongings for example, the search is illegal.
Individuals have a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects with regard to unreasonable search and seizures. If an officer of the law or other governmental agency exercises an illegal search, they may have violated your 4th Amendment rights, thus invalidating the charges against you. Probable cause is a complex concept that can sometimes make or break a case. Ultimately is up to the discretion of a judge to decide if it was exercised properly, therefore, legal representation is crucial if there is any doubt. If you or a family member believe you have been subjected to an illegal search or seizure of evidence, contact the criminal defense Law Offices of Andrew C. Ladd, LLC for help today.