Probable cause is one of the most important evidentiary standards in the legal system. It is so important that it is engraved in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that people or their property cannot be searched or seized without it. If police violate your rights, this may help provide grounds to dismiss or reduce criminal charges against you. 

At The Zeiger Firm, we offer a free consultation where we can answer questions you have about your case, like “What is probable cause?” and whether the police have violated your rights. Contact us today to get started with your defense. 

What Does Probable Cause Mean?

Probable cause generally means that a reasonable basis exists to believe that a crime was committed or that evidence of a crime is present in a place to be searched by police. Probable cause must usually exist before police can:

  • Search property or seize evidence
  • Obtain a warrant to search property
  • Make an arrest

PA Rights When Searched by Police 

Generally, police must have probable cause in Pennsylvania before they can search your property. The usual process is that police have to secure a search warrant by submitting an affidavit to a judge that provides a sufficient basis for a finding of probable cause. If the judge believes the warrant demonstrates enough probable cause to justify a search, they will issue a search warrant. Police can then execute the search warrant to search your property. However, police must stay within the parameters of the search warrant, such as limiting the search to one room in a house or only to retrieve certain evidence related to the alleged crime. 

However, there are some instances when police do not have to go through the process of obtaining a search warrant, such as:

  • When exigent (emergency) circumstances exist
  • When you consent to the search
  • When the police officer’s safety is at risk
  • When pulling you over during a traffic stop
  • When evidence is in plain view 

Can an Officer Pull You Over Without Probable Cause? 

Yes. Traffic stops do not follow the same rules as searches of property. There are several reasons for this. First, cars are mobile in nature, so there is a concern that if the stop is not completed promptly, evidence of a crime or the suspect may disappear. Second, vehicles are operated on public roadways, not within the privacy of your home, as is the case with a property search. Third, officers can generally take steps to ensure their own safety, such as checking for weapons. 

Instead, police only need reasonable suspicion to pull you over. This is a lower evidentiary standard than probable cause. While reasonable suspicion is only necessary to pull you over, probable cause is generally still required before police can search the vehicle. 

What Is Reasonable Suspicion? 

Before an officer can pull over someone or briefly detain them for questioning, they must have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect committed a crime or traffic violation. Law enforcement officers cannot simply stop people randomly or due to racial profiling. However, they can rely on their experiences, training, and observations to establish reasonable suspicion. 

What Is the Difference Between Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion?

The courts define probable cause as the reasonable basis to believe that a crime was committed or evidence of a crime is present in the place to be searched. It is generally necessary to have probable cause before searching a vehicle, person, or property. It is also necessary to have probable cause before obtaining a search warrant or making an arrest. 

Reasonable suspicion requires a law enforcement officer to reasonably believe that the suspect committed a crime or traffic violation. It is a lower evidentiary standard and the one that applies to make a traffic stop. The stop must be based on the circumstances and facts. There has to be some type of evidence to justify the stop. 

Neither standard allows law enforcement officers to stop people at random or based upon a mere hunch. Likewise, police officers cannot stop someone just because they “look suspicious.”

When Can a Cop Search Your Car? 

Cops can generally search your car under any of the following circumstances:

  • You give consent for the search.
  • Exigent circumstances exist that make the police officer believe you are in commission of a crime or in the process of disposing of evidence.
  • The officer has probable cause for the search.
  • You are placed under arrest for a related crime like drug possession. 

PA Rights When Stopped by a Cop 

If a police officer stops you, you have certain rights, including:

  • The right to remain silent, such as not responding if the officer asks where you are coming from
  • The right not to have your vehicle searched without probable cause
  • The right to refuse a search if the police officer is relying on your consent for the search
  • The right to refuse to take field sobriety tests, which are only given to obtain evidence against you, not to clear you from suspicion
  • The right to leave the scene if you are not being arrested
  • The right to have an attorney if you are arrested

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

If you were stopped by law enforcement and believe that probable cause was not present, do not delay in reaching out to a skilled Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer. At The Zeiger Firm, we fight aggressively to protect our clients’ rights and freedom. Contact us today for a free and confidential case consultation.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.