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How Do I Know if the Police Have Probable Cause for an Arrest?

Technically, the police have to have a good reason to arrest you for a crime. The police can't arrest you just because they don't like you or because you look like a criminal. The police have to have probable cause to make an arrest. 

What does probable cause mean? Unfortunately, there's not a clear definition of what probable cause means. If the police arrest you without probable cause, your attorney may be able to use that as a legal defense to suppress any evidence gathered after an unlawful search.   

Probable cause defenses can be complicated and an experienced California criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your rights. If you were arrested in Oakland or the East Bay,  talk to East Bay criminal defense lawyer Lynn Gorelick about your best legal defenses.

What Is Probable Cause For an Arrest in California?

Probable cause is the legal standard for making an arrest in California. The police need to have probable cause to: 

  • Detain you
  • Make an arrest
  • Get a search warrant

Probable cause gives a law enforcement officer the power to make an arrest. Probable cause requires more than just a suspicion of a crime. Generally, probable cause exists where there are articulable facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed. 

For example, if a police officer sees someone who looks suspicious and says something like, "I never follow the rules," this doesn't mean they have probable cause to make an arrest. However, if a police officer stops a driver for running a red light and sees an empty bottle of alcohol on the floor of the car, this could be enough to make a reasonable person suspect the driver had been drinking and driving. 

What Is Reasonable Suspicion?

There is a lower legal standard for detaining a driver during a traffic stop. This is known as reasonable suspicion. A police officer can pull over a driver for reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation, including speeding, having expired registration, or a broken tail light. However, reasonable suspicion of a crime is not enough to let a police officer search a driver's car. 

To make an arrest or search the driver's vehicle, the officer has to have probable cause that the suspect is involved in criminal activity. 

What Happens If the Officer Doesn't Have Probable Cause?

Even though police officers need to have probable cause to make an arrest, there isn't much a person can do to stop the rogue officer if they don't have justification. If you resist arrest, you may face additional criminal charges. Instead, you may only get your chance to defend your rights in court. 

If the police arrested you or searched your property without probable cause, your attorney can file a legal motion to suppress any evidence illegally gathered by the police. This is known as the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Law enforcement shouldn't benefit from evidence gathered after a violation of your constitutional rights. The law may allow you to throw out any evidence gathered in an unlawful search. 

For example, if the police arrested without probable cause and find a gun in your glove box, your attorney could file a motion to suppress the evidence of the firearm. If you are charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and the prosecutor can't use the evidence that a gun was found, the prosecutor may have to drop the charges. 

Talk to your East Bay criminal defense attorney about your legal rights after an unlawful arrest or illegal search. 

What Is Probable Cause for a Search Warrant?

To search your property without consent, the police generally need a search warrant. There are limited exceptions to the search warrant requirement but in most cases, a search warrant has to have: 

  • Signature by a judge
  • Specify the location for the search
  • Specify the items to be seized

To get a search warrant, the police or prosecutor needs to go to the judge with probable cause to conduct a search. This includes facts and information that a crime has been committed and there is evidence of the crime. 

Search warrants can't be overly broad. This is a particularity requirement. Search warrants have to specify the search area and evidence sought. For example, if you are suspected of selling a controlled substance from your garage, the search warrant may specify they need to search your garage for methamphetamines. 

A search warrant can't just be based on a police officer's suspicions alone because the judge has to independently agree that there is probable cause. For example, if a police officer wants to search your house because they think you are a criminal, they will first have to convince a judge that there is probable cause that you committed a crime and have evidence of the crime in your house. 

Are There Exceptions to Search Warrant Requirements?

There are exceptions to the search warrant requirement. Depending on the situation, a police officer may lawfully search your car or your property without a warrant. Exceptions include: 

  • Consent
  • Plain view of the evidence
  • Search incident to an arrest 

If the police show up at your house and want to conduct a search, they generally have to have a warrant. However, if the police ask to come in and look around and you say yes, then they don't need a warrant because you consented to the search. Before consenting to a search of your property, make sure you understand your rights. 

If the police pull you over for speeding and see a sawed-off shotgun in your back seat, they can arrest you for the unlawful firearm because the contraband was in plain view. For the plain view exception, the police need to see the evidence from a place where they can legally be. For example, a police officer couldn't break into your house and try to claim that they saw evidence in plain view when they were unlawfully in your house. 

Police officers can also conduct limited searches during an arrest. This is generally limited to areas in and around you, like your clothes, bags, and anything in reach. This is intended to make sure you don't destroy any evidence and don't have any weapons. 

How Can I Fight Criminal Charges After an Unlawful Arrest?

The police can get away with a lot. If they violate your constitutional rights because of an unlawful arrest or illegal search, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can defend you to enforce your rights. East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 40 years of California criminal defense experience, representing people in Alameda County and Contra Costa County. Contact East Bay criminal defense lawyer Lynn Gorelick today.

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