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What is Probable Cause?

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Criminal Defense, Evidence, General Defense Info

Q: What exactly is probable cause? A: Probable cause is a legal standard used in the United States, including Tacoma, WA, that requires a reasonable basis for believing that a person has committed a crime. It’s a crucial concept in the criminal justice system that guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, as protected under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Types of Probable Cause

Q: Are there different types of probable cause? A: Yes, probable cause can apply in various contexts, each with its specific focus and requirements:

  1. Arrest: Police need probable cause to arrest someone. This means there must be sufficient evidence that a reasonable person would believe the suspect has committed a crime.
  2. Search: To conduct a search, law enforcement officers need probable cause to believe that the specific area or item to be searched contains evidence of a crime.
  3. Seizure: For seizing any property believed to be involved in a crime, officers must have probable cause to think that the items hold evidence or are contraband.

Q: How is probable cause established? A: Probable cause is established through various means, including but not limited to, eyewitness accounts, police officer observations, informant tips, and evidence obtained from preliminary investigations. Each piece of evidence is weighed for its reliability and validity to form a comprehensive reason to believe a crime has been committed.

Importance of Probable Cause

Q: Why is probable cause important? A: Probable cause serves as a safeguard for citizens against arbitrary actions by law enforcement. Here’s why it’s fundamental:

  1. Protection of Privacy: It ensures that the government respects individual privacy and does not intrude into personal lives without just cause.
  2. Prevention of Unjust Detention: It prevents law enforcement from detaining individuals without sufficient reason, thereby protecting people from wrongful arrests and prosecutions.
  3. Legal Framework for Searches and Seizures: It provides a legal standard that must be met before law enforcement can search property or seize evidence, thereby ensuring that such actions are justified and necessary.
  4. Judicial Oversight: Probable cause requires judicial approval for warrants, thus involving an unbiased third party to review the actions of law enforcement, which helps maintain checks and balances.

Q: What happens if there’s no probable cause for an arrest or search? A: Actions taken without probable cause can be challenged in court. If a court finds that an arrest or a search was conducted without probable cause, any evidence obtained as a result of that action can be excluded from trial under the exclusionary rule. This means that charges against the defendant may be dropped if critical evidence is deemed inadmissible.

Q: How does probable cause impact criminal proceedings in Tacoma? A: In Tacoma, as in the rest of Washington and the United States, establishing probable cause is a prerequisite for legal proceedings to ensure fairness and justice in the criminal justice system. It directly impacts the validity of an arrest or search and plays a crucial role in the progression of criminal cases from the investigation to the courtroom.

*Probable cause is governed by various statutes and legal precedents that establish and clarify its application. The most relevant statutory and constitutional provisions typically pertain to criminal procedure and the rights protected under the U.S. Constitution. Here’s a breakdown of some key statutes and constitutional provisions relevant to probable cause:

Federal and State Constitutional Provisions

  1. Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: This is the primary constitutional provision concerning probable cause. It states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  2. Washington State Constitution, Article I, Section 7: This provision often provides even greater protection than the Fourth Amendment. It states that “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

Statutory Laws

While the concept of probable cause itself is more directly defined and governed by case law and these constitutional provisions, various Washington state statutes provide guidelines on how law enforcement and courts should handle issues related to probable cause, especially in terms of procedures:

  1. Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 10.31.100 – Arrests without a Warrant: This statute outlines the conditions under which law enforcement officers in Washington may make arrests without a warrant, implicitly requiring probable cause.
  2. RCW 10.79 – Search and Seizure: This chapter includes multiple statutes that detail the process and requirements for obtaining search warrants and the necessary conditions (including probable cause) under which searches and seizures can occur.
  3. RCW 9A.76.175 – Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer: This statute, while not directly about probable cause, often intersects with probable cause discussions as it deals with interactions between citizens and police during investigative actions.

Case Law

Case law also significantly influences the application of probable cause, with numerous Supreme Court rulings providing clarity and guidelines, including:

  • Mapp v. Ohio (1961): Established the exclusionary rule, which excludes evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  • Terry v. Ohio (1968): Defined reasonable suspicion and its relation to probable cause, allowing for limited searches (frisks) based on reasonable suspicion.

Practical Application

In practice, law enforcement officers are trained to understand and apply these legal standards, while defense attorneys scrutinize the validity of probable cause in criminal cases. Judges also play a critical role by overseeing the issuance of warrants and reviewing probable cause during pre-trial motions.

Understanding these statutes and constitutional provisions is crucial for anyone involved in the criminal justice process, as they lay the foundation for lawful police conduct and the protection of individual rights.