Probable Cause Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Probable Cause, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Probable Cause?

It refers to a resonable justifying facts that proves or makes an average intellegent man believe that the crime was committed by the accused or that the crime has been committed at a certain property and the accused is connected some way or the other. These facts justifies the police action thereafter as in arrest or issuing warrant or search of the property.

History and Meaning of Probable Cause

Probable cause is a fundamental concept in criminal law that describes the level of evidence required to justify an arrest or the issuance of a search warrant. The concept dates back to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment requires that searches and seizures be based on probable cause, which is interpreted to mean a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed.

Examples of Probable Cause

  1. A police officer pulls over a driver who is swerving on the road. The officer smells alcohol on the driver's breath and notices that the driver's eyes are bloodshot. Based on these facts, the officer has probable cause to administer a breathalyzer test to determine whether the driver is driving under the influence of alcohol.

  2. Law enforcement receives a tip that an individual is selling drugs from their home. Upon surveillance, they notice a high-volume of foot traffic from the house at all hours of the night, and can smell the scent of drugs coming from the residence. Based on these facts, they have probable cause to execute a search warrant and arrest the individual if necessary.

  3. An officer receives a report of a burglary that has taken place at a local store. When the officer arrives, they notice that a window has been smashed and there are tire tracks leading away from the scene. The officer stops a nearby car with matching tire tracks and notices that the driver has a backpack full of merchandise with tags still attached. This is probable cause to arrest the driver.

Legal Terms Similar to Probable Cause

  1. Reasonable suspicion: This is a lower level of suspicion that is required for an officer to temporarily detain and question someone if they have reason to believe they are involved in criminal activity.

  2. Beyond a reasonable doubt: In a criminal trial, this is the highest level of evidence required for a guilty verdict.

  3. Preponderance of evidence: This is the level of evidence required in civil trials, where the evidence suggests that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.