What is probable cause? – False Arrest and Probable Cause
Clearly defining what is probable cause is a difficult task. There is no definite rule establishing precisely what is and what is not probable cause. However, what has become apparent is that finding probable cause requires objective facts that indicate probable criminal activity. A police officer’s hunch, without anything else, will not satisfy the requirements, and could lead to charges like false arrest.
Example: Officer Doright observes Tom and Dick walking down the street. Officer Doright has a hunch that Tom and Dick are not going to do any good. Without further weapons, Officer Doright goes to the local judge and tries to get a search warrant for the boys’ house. Should a judge grant the warrant? No. A cop’s hunch, without anything else, won’t satisfy the probable cause requirement. However, if Officer Doright observed that Tom and Dick were making a drug deal, then there could be probable cause for a search warrant for their home.
Definitions of Probable Cause.
These are some definitions from encyclopedias and law dictionaries:
“n. sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime. Probable cause must exist for a law enforcement officer to make an arrest without a warrant, search without a warrant, or seize property in the belief the items were evidence of a crime.
While some cases are easy (pistols and illicit drugs in plain sight, gunshots, a suspect running from a liquor store with a clerk screaming “help”), actions “typical” of drug dealers, burglars, prostitutes, thieves, or people with guilt “written across their faces,” are more difficult to categorize.
“Probable cause” is often subjective, but if the police officer’s belief or even hunch was correct, finding stolen goods, the hidden weapon or drugs may be claimed as self-fulfilling proof of probable cause. Technically, probable cause has to exist prior to arrest, search or seizure.”
“Probable cause is a standard used in justifying certain police actions. For example, police need to have probable cause to believe evidence of a crime exists in requesting a search warrant to be issued. It is more than mere suspicion but less than the amount of evidence required for conviction.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has two clauses. The first states that people have a right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the second states that no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause. Probable cause is the level of evidence held by a rational and objective observer necessary to justify logically accusing a specific suspect of a particular crime based upon reliable objective facts.
For example, a police officer may claim there is probable cause for attempted theft when someone is found trespassing on private property late at night wearing a stocking mask, in order to justify stopping and searching the person for possession of criminal tools.”
Probable Cause and False Arrest
According to Nolo, Probable cause is a complete defense to false arrest.
Probable cause exists if there are sufficient facts to believe that the person arrested has committed or was committing an offense.
It does not matter whether the officer (or store manager) personally believed the person had committed a crime. Nor does it matter whether the person was actually guilty of an offense. (Guilt is a question for criminal court, and requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)
Note that the officer also does not have to personally observe the crime. Information from a victim or an eyewitness can provide probable cause to arrest — so long as it was reasonable to believe that person. Before an arrest can be supported by probable cause based on secondhand information, however, there usually must be some other corroborating evidence linking the person to the alleged crime.
Haddad & Sherwin LLP has a long, successful track record winning wrongful death and other serious civil rights claims for police and jail officer misconduct, throughout Northern and Central California. Call or email us for a free consultation.