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 search your vehicle.
The major exception to the probable cause requirement for vehicle searches is consent. Most vehicle searches do not 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. The 4th Amendment does not require officers to tell you about your right to refuse.
If you are pulled over, do not 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, he or she will grant the motion. Unless the prosecution has other evidence, your charges would be dismissed.
Probable Cause and DUIs
The facts of every case are different, however, in certain scenarios they are frequently part of an officer’s reasonable suspicion or probable cause determination in DUI cases.
Traffic violations. Any traffic violation can give police reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. Just because the initial stop is for a traffic violation, that does not mean the detention cannot evolve into a DUI investigation. An officer who notices signs of intoxication (like slurred speech or the odor of alcohol) during a traffic detention will likely investigate further.
Traffic accidents. If you are involved in a collision, there is a good chance that police will show up, especially when the accident involves injuries or significant property damage. Due to the fact that many accidents are caused by impaired drivers, officers are typically on the lookout for indications of intoxication when conducting accident investigations.
Bad driving. With traffic violations and accident investigations, the officer incidentally discovers evidence of driver impairment. However, it is also common for police to investigate a stop based on a suspicion of drunk driving. Such suspicions are typically related to unusual or erratic driving like swerving, driving in the wrong direction on a roadway, or driving extremely slow.
In-person observations. In addition to driving patterns, an officer’s observations during a traffic stop can supply the necessary probable cause for a DUI arrest. To justify an arrest, officers often cite factors like the odor of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and odd behavior.
DUI testing. Police often use field sobriety tests and breathalyzers during DUI investigations. Generally, drivers do not have to participate in Field Sobriety Tests or breathalyzers, but many drivers take these tests voluntarily (or don’t know they have a right to refuse). Field Sobriety Tests and Breathalyzer results can be important components of an officer’s probable cause determination.
If you are charged with a Refusal and/or DUI, your best bet is to contact an Attorney who is experienced in this area of law. Attorney Archambault understands the anxiety individuals experience when facing criminal charges. Therefore, he takes the time to meet with his clients to explain the charges and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss your case with Attorney Archambault.