You’ve probably heard the phrase “probable cause” fairly often in connection with criminal cases. The words seem somewhat self-explanatory, but they actually have a specific meaning in a legal context, and if police fail to show that they have probable cause to take an action in connection with an arrest, it can mean that charges are dismissed, or a conviction can be reversed on appeal.
The Law Requires That Police Have Probable Cause
Law enforcement must show that they have probable cause to either get a search warrant or make an arrest. The concept is rooted in the Fourth Amendment requirement that "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” but the term isn’t defined in the Constitution, leaving it up to courts to interpret.
Given the somewhat abstract nature of the concept, the line is that probable cause must be something more than a mere hunch. A police officer cannot say he just felt that someone looked like a drug dealer to make an arrest (even if that person is found to have drugs in his or her possession). But the officer is not required to obtain the same amount of evidence that would be required for a conviction in order to have probable cause either. In this case, he wouldn’t necessarily have to wait around for the defendant to sell drugs to make an arrest.
In the U.S. Supreme Court case Illinois v. Gates, probable cause was somewhat vaguely defined as “practical, non-technical" term that relies on an individual analysis of the facts and circumstances of the case. Determining probable cause largely comes down to determining whether a reasonable person would believe that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed. This means that it’s often up to an attorney to argue that no probable cause existed.
What Happens When Police Lack Probable Cause?
As probable cause is the basis for any action by law enforcement in a criminal case, lack of it can destroy the prosecution’s case. Any evidence that is seized from a search that police undertook without probable cause should be suppressed by the court. In many cases, if this is the only evidence the state has related to the crime, the charges will be dismissed.
Similarly, if it appears that the police did not act reasonably in finding probable cause when making an initial arrest, anything discovered related to that arrest will not be allowed in court. These issues can be raised at the beginning of a case in the hopes of having charges dismissed, or later on as the basis for reversing a conviction on appeal.
Chicago Defense Law
Probable cause can be the difference between a criminal conviction and charges being dismissed. For this reason, if you believe law enforcement lacked probable cause to make an arrest in your case, an experienced appellate attorney may be able to get your criminal conviction vacated on appeal. For more information, contact the Chicago offices of Barney & Hourihane today for a consultation.