What Is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is one of the most important features of criminal law in the United States. People are generally free from being arrested or harassed by police when there is no probable cause. 

But, what exactly is probable cause? Criminal defense attorneys often get this question. Experienced criminal defense lawyers have successfully had charges dropped or consequences mitigated when they have established a lack of probable cause in their clients’ cases. 

If you’re facing criminal charges, contact an attorney for a free consultation to discuss whether this important legal concept may impact your case.

What Is the Definition of Probable Cause?

What Is the Definition of Probable Cause?

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” of “persons, houses, papers, and effects” unless there is probable cause and affirmation that “particularly” describes the place that will be searched and the person or things that will be seized. 

Generally, searches require the government first to secure a warrant against the person whose belongings they plan to search, and this warrant must also be supported by probable cause. 

Put simply, probable cause is the totality of the facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been or will be committed and the person arrested is involved in that crime. 

For a search, probable cause requires that evidence of the crime is present in the location to be searched. Police must generally know which specific crime has been committed and cannot base their warrant on conjecture, a hunch, or the belief that random criminal behavior is occurring. 

When Is Probable Cause Required in Kentucky?

Probable cause is generally required before police officers make an arrest, conduct a search, or receive a warrant. However, there are important exceptions. 

Before arresting a person, law enforcement must generally obtain a warrant. However, even if law enforcement has a warrant, they still have to be able to show there is probable cause for the arrest. 

Probable cause is based on the information the arresting officers knew at the time of the arrest. To determine whether probable cause exists for the arrest and continued detainment, a probable cause hearing is scheduled shortly after the arrest.

Generally, Kentucky law says that a law enforcement officer can make an arrest when: 

  • They have an arrest warrant
  • A felony or misdemeanor was committed in front of them
  • The arresting officer has probable cause to believe the person being arrested has committed a felony 
  • Specific crimes are believed to have been committed outside of the officer’s presence

The issue of probable cause can also apply to obtaining a search warrant. Again, a warrant is typically required before law enforcement can conduct a search, though there are exceptions. 

Probable cause is present when there is a fair probability that the search will result in the discovery of evidence of a crime. The underlying warrant must state what probable cause is based on. It should also be supported by an affidavit that supplies reliable facts, information, or circumstances to conclude that a crime has been committed and the location to be searched contains evidence of the crime. 

When Is Probable Cause Not Required in Kentucky?

There are several situations when probable cause may not be necessary, including:

  • The investigation occurs on abandoned property
  • Evidence of a crime is in plain view
  • Exigent circumstances exist 
  • The person searched consented to the search 
  • Only reasonable suspicion is necessary, such as when the person is pulled over during a traffic stop or “stop and frisk” encounter with police

If any of these apply to your case, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer for help. 

The legal effect of a lack of probable cause depends on the circumstances surrounding your case. In some matters, a lack of probable cause may not significantly affect the outcome of your case, such as if a search was otherwise justified or the police would have inevitably discovered evidence against you. 

However, in other cases, the lack of probable cause can mean that the evidence the police gathered against you will be inadmissible in court. Additionally, due to a legal doctrine known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” any evidence stemming from the initial constitutional violation can also be suppressed. 

For example, say law enforcement conducted a warrantless search of your home without probable cause. During this search, they discovered a ledger containing an associate’s name, address, and money he owed for drugs he bought from you. The police then arrest the associate, who subsequently confesses to buying drugs from you. 

If the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine applies in your case, the ledger can be suppressed as evidence, and so can the confession since the police wouldn’t have otherwise obtained this information without the warrantless search. Their initial violation, therefore, tainted the evidence they later obtained. 

How a Louisville Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help You Argue Lack of Probable Cause 

Probable cause is one of the most hotly contested issues in criminal defense cases. Showing that law enforcement did not have justification to stop you, arrest you, or search you can potentially provide grounds to dismiss your criminal charges. 

Consulting with an attorney can allow you to understand your case and whether arguing lack of probable cause is a possible legal strategy for you. An experienced Louisville criminal defense lawyer will successfully argue against constitutional violations, such as searches or seizures lacking probable cause.