Probable cause is the legal standard by which a police officer has the right to make an arrest, conduct a personal or property search, or obtain a warrant for arrest. While many factors contribute to a police officer’s level of authority in a given situation, probable cause requires facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has committed a crime.
Common examples of probable cause include the sight or smell of contraband in plain view or plain smell or an admission of guilt for a specific crime. The presentation of any of these facts would allow an officer to perform a search and make an arrest.
Be aware that minor traffic violations (e.g. speeding, broken tail-light, or expired registration) are not considered probable cause.
What probable cause means to you
While there are certain situations where police need a warrant to search you or your property — during a traffic stop, police only need probable cause to legally search your vehicle.
The major exception to the probable cause requirement for vehicle searches is consent. Most vehicle searches don’t occur because police have probable cause. They occur because people get tricked or intimidated into consenting to search requests.
Consenting to a search request automatically makes the search legal in the eyes of the law. And the 4th Amendment doesn’t require officers to tell you about your right to refuse. So if you’re pulled over, don’t try to figure out whether or not the officer has probable cause to legally search you. You always have the right to refuse search requests by stating, “Officer, I don’t consent to any searches.” Repeat, if necessary.
If you refuse consent but the officer searches you anyway and finds illegal items, your lawyer can file a motion to suppress — or throw out — the evidence in court. If the judge agrees that the officer’s search violated the 4th Amendment’s probable cause requirements, she’ll grant the motion. Unless the prosecution has other evidence, your charges would be dismissed.