probable cause | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Policing / Procedural Law

Probable cause is the Fourth Amendment standard of evidence for searches, seizures, and arrests.

Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers’ knowledge and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed.

Probable cause (PC) is a legal standard that is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is a crucial concept in criminal law, as it is the minimum level of evidence that must be established before a search, seizure, or arrest can be made.

The standard of probable cause requires that the police or other law enforcement officials have a reasonable belief that a crime has been or is being committed based on the facts and circumstances known to them at the time. The belief must be based on specific and articulable facts rather than on a mere hunch or suspicion.

The Supreme Court has defined probable cause as “a reasonable belief that a person has committed or is committing a crime.” In order to establish PC, the police must be able to point to specific facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed.

The facts and circumstances that establish probable cause may include information obtained from informants, observations made by police officers, and evidence collected at the scene of a crime. In addition, the police may rely on information obtained through electronic surveillance, such as wiretaps or GPS tracking, as long as that information was obtained through legal means.

The standard of probable cause is critical in protecting the rights of individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. It ensures that law enforcement officials cannot simply act on a whim or suspicion but must have a reasonable basis for their actions.

Moreover, the requirement of probable cause also ensures that law enforcement officials are held accountable for their actions. If a search, seizure, or arrest is made without probable cause, any evidence obtained as a result may be suppressed in court, and the officials responsible may face disciplinary action or civil liability.

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Last Modified: 04/06/2023


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