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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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What is the Role of Probable Cause When It Comes to Police Searches?

By Spodek Law Group | February 23, 2017
(Last Updated On: July 27, 2023)

Last Updated on: 27th July 2023, 06:33 pm

Police normally need one of two things to search your home or vehicle: a warrant or your consent. Without either of those, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the police from conducting any searches of your property. However, police are able to conduct a search without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or has taken place.
A warrantless search based on probable cause is most common during traffic stops. For example, if a police officer stops a driver and smells marijuana when the driver rolls down the window, the officer could search the vehicle or have the driver perform a field sobriety test, based on the chance that the driver has marijuana in the vehicle or used marijuana before getting behind the wheel. There is no set guideline for when an officer does and does not have probable cause to conduct a search, and instead it varies on a case-by-case basis. If the search is challenged in court, then the court will decide if there was enough probable cause to search the property.
Minor violations are not enough evidence to constitute probable cause. Here’s the difference between situations that would and would not show probable cause of a crime:
If there’s a house party going on and the police show up because of a noise complaint, they could ask the home owner to keep their music down, but they wouldn’t have probable cause to come in and search the house. However, if they spotted several people who appeared to be underage and intoxicated, then they would have probable cause to check IDs and search the premises, if those people were in fact underage.
If a police officer pulls a driver over for failing to signal before making a turn, that alone doesn’t give the officer probable cause to search the driver’s vehicle. The driver could have simply forgotten, had something in his hand at the time or he may be in a rental car that he’s not familiar with. But if the driver is slurring his words and has bloodshot eyes, that would give the officer probable cause to conduct a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer to check if the driver was intoxicated.
The standards for establishing probable cause are obviously much lower than the standards for establishing guilt with a defendant, so there can be situations where the police have probable cause to conduct a search, even though the person is in fact innocent of any crime.
While police do use probable cause to conduct searches, what occurs far more often is people giving up their constitutional rights by consenting to searches when police don’t have a warrant. Police will typically try to obtain your consent before using probable cause, because they know that as soon as they get your consent, the search is completely legal. That’s why it’s important to know your rights.
Police don’t need to explain to you that you have the right to refuse a search, and they often trick people into consenting to searches. An officer may casually ask you if they can “take a look around,” or ask you why you wouldn’t allow them to search your vehicle if you “have nothing to hide.” They may also make it seem like they could just get a warrant, and if they do they’re going to search more than if you just consent.
Don’t fall for any of these traps. You have the right to refuse a warrantless search. The simplest response is to say “I don’t consent to any police searches.” If they continue to try convincing you to consent, ask them if you’re being detained, or if you’re free to leave.
Refusing to consent to any police searches is the most effective way to protect yourself. A police officer may still conduct a search if they think they have probable cause, but if you’re prosecuted for a crime based on what they find, your lawyer could argue that it was an unconstitutional search. If you gave your consent, your lawyer won’t be able to argue that anymore.

Understanding Your Rights: Probable Cause vs. Consent to Search

In a world where law enforcement officers are often seen as “gunning for” the average citizen, it is crucial to understand your rights pertaining to search and seizure, and how to guard them effectively. Probable cause and consent to search are two key aspects that every individual should familiarize themselves with to ensure their constitutional protections are secured.

The Necessity of a Warrant or Consent for Searches

At the heart of the matter is the fact that police generally require one of two things to search your home or vehicle: a warrant or your direct consent. In the absence of these, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits law enforcement officers from searching your property. However, there is an exception to this rule: if the police have probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred or is ongoing, they may conduct a search without a warrant.

Warrantless Searches Based on Probable Cause

In numerous instances, particularly during traffic stops, law enforcement officers conduct warrantless searches predicated on probable cause. Imagine, for example, a police officer pulling over a driver and detecting the distinct odor of marijuana upon approaching the vehicle. In this case, the officer would understandably assume that the driver may be in possession of the illicit substance, thereby establishing probable cause to search the vehicle or administer a field sobriety test.

It is crucial to note that there is no universally applicable standard for determining probable cause; it is assessed on a case-by-case basis.

This assessment is often left to the discretion of the court if a search is subsequently challenged.

What Constitutes Probable Cause?

It is important to understand what does not constitute probable cause – minor violations will not suffice. To clarify, let’s examine two contrasting situations:

Scenario 1: The House Party

Police are responding to a noise complaint emanating from a boisterous house party. Upon arrival, the officers may request the homeowner to reduce the volume of the music, but this alone does not provide probable cause for them to enter and search the premises. However, if the officers observe several clearly underage, inebriated individuals, they could then establish probable cause to check IDs and conduct a search.

Scenario 2: The Traffic Stop

A driver is pulled over by a police officer for failing to signal before making a turn. This action, in itself, does not grant the officer probable cause to search the vehicle. However, if the officer notices the driver slurring their speech and displaying bloodshot eyes, this would warrant a field sobriety test or breathalyzer – as probable cause has now been established.

Bear in mind that the standards for establishing probable cause are significantly lower than those required to prove guilt; there can be instances where probable cause is present, even though the individual is innocent of any crime.

Beware of Relinquishing Your Rights

Unfortunately, many individuals unwittingly relinquish their constitutional rights by consenting to searches when police lack a warrant. Officers will often attempt to obtain your consent first, knowing that once received, the search becomes indisputably legal.

Protecting Your Rights from Police Searches

To guard against inadvertently losing your rights, always remember that you have the right to refuse a warrantless search. If officers attempt to persuade you to consent, calmly state: “I do not consent to any police searches.” Should they persist, inquire if you are being detained or are free to leave.

Taking a stand against consenting to police searches is a powerful means of shielding your rights, even if the officer believes they have probable cause for a search. In the event that you face prosecution based on evidence discovered during an unconstitutional search, your lawyer can challenge the legality of the search. However, if you have given consent, your defense options will be severely limited.

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