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What is probable cause in a criminal case?

Watching any measure of crime TV will introduce you to the term "probable cause." You may hear it concerning a traffic stop or entry into a residence during a tense situation.

Do you understand what constitutes probable cause and when the police can institute it? If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of those words, it will do you good to know how to respond and handle yourself accordingly.

Fundamentals of probable cause

The basic premise behind probable cause is that there is an expectation that a person will or has already committed a criminal act. When a police officer suspects either of these is true, he or she must know enough facts exist that point to the crime. Before an officer obtains a warrant, the court must decide if a reasonable person would reach the same conclusion. This is one of the benchmarks of proving probable cause.

Most common ways to establish probable cause

Officers have investigative skills that can help them conclude a person has committed a crime. The most common examples are:

  • Information: Tips gathered from other parties who witnessed or participated in the crime.
  • Observation: Seeing a criminal act in action or arriving on the scene.
  • Circumstantial evidence: While the police investigate one crime, they may happen upon proof of another. They then infer the circumstances surrounding the other offense.
  • Consent: If an officer asks a person for permission to search them or their property – like a car – and the person allows it, probable cause does not need proving.
  • Professional skills: Police use their training and knowledge to reach conclusions based on the totality of a situation. They may establish probable cause if they believe conditions exist that prove a crime.
  • Sensory gathering: When police use what they see, smell or hear to establish criminal activity.

Probable cause can lead to criminal charges. You may want the assistance of an attorney if you find yourself on the receiving end.

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