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Updated: Dec 17, 2019

"Probable cause" is a term you've probably heard before. But do you know what it means or how it can impact you in terms of law enforcement and the legal system? It's important to know your rights when it comes to this complex issue.


Probable Cause Defined Probable cause is a requirement of the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Law enforcement can acquire a warrant, conduct a search or make an arrest if adequate facts or evidence would lead a reasonable individual to believe the person of interest has committed a crime.


A police officer must gather facts to support their suspicions before performing a search or making an arrest. These facts can be obtained via observation, expertise, information, circumstantial evidence or your consent.


Probable Cause and the Supreme Court In the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), a police officer searched three suspicious men outside of a jewelry store, suspecting they were planning a robbery. The defendants were convicted and later appealed, claiming the search violated their Fourth Amendment rights. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the police officer in question did have a "reasonable suspicion" to pat down the suspects for weapons.


Probable Cause in the News Advances in cellphone technology have added a new dimension to the issue of privacy and probable cause. Should search warrants be required before police officers can gain access to cellphone location data? That's a question the Supreme Court will soon answer.


There's also misunderstanding concerning the amount of power Customs and Border Protection officers have at airports and checkpoints. You can be searched at the border without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, even if you are a U.S. citizen.


Whether you're stopped for a routine traffic violation or held up at an international border, knowing your rights can help you react accordingly. Stay informed.

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