Understanding the Law
November 15, 2019
Probable cause

Warrantless arrest and the role of probable cause

The phrase “probable cause” is used very often in criminal matters. These words are on the mind of every police officer when he confronts a suspect and when he views certain actions on the part of that suspect. It is a powerful weapon with which the officer is armed. It means that a police officer cannot arrest a person on a hunch. Although there need not be absolute certainty, there must not be a mere suspicion. Probable cause is the legal standard on which he makes an arrest. Probable cause is based on reasonable belief that a person has committed or will commit a crime. There must be objective circumstances causing the police officer to believe that a suspect has committed a crime or will commit a crime. Only then can he make a warrantless arrest, but the situation has to be processed quickly in his mind to carry out that arrest. He does not have to decide on “reasonable doubt”, that would be decided by the court.

The suspect could be later proven innocent. The police officer does not have the last word on the issue. He might be quite sincere when he assess probable cause and decides that it exists in the situation before him. It is the judge who will have the last word when he examines the facts in the matter.

Probable cause is an abstract concept and it is the reason why the suspect is sometimes detained without a formal arrest. The police officer could say “come go with me to the station.”

Based on the training, a police officer should be able to establish probable cause. He has to rely on his senses to determine what he saw, heard and smell. He can also depend on the information from witnesses, informants and victims. He should be able to identify certain tools, gestures, movements, among others. The police is especially dependent on valid and reliable information. The police officer could ask how likely it is that the suspect committed a crime.

A person reports a burglary to the police and the police rushed to the scene. The grill at the door is ripped out, and lying on the floor. A window is shattered. The homeowner claimed that he saw the thief run out the house. He said that he was about five feet eight inches tall and he was dressed in grey shirt and blue jeans. A police officer later stopped a car for speeding and the description given by the homeowner matched the driver of the car. The police officer noticed a small black safe in the car that matched the description of that which the homeowner gave. The police can use his “probable cause” ammunition to arrest the suspect.

Obtaining a warrant

The law requires a police officer to obtain a warrant to arrest a suspect, especially where the arrest is to be carried out on the person’s property or where there is a need to search his house for ill-gotten goods. Where the police officer makes a search of someone’s house without a search warrant, the search is illegal. The police must obtain an arrest warrant or search warrant from a neutral magistrate and the police must establish “probable cause” that a crime was committed and that items connected to a crime could be found at the place specified in the warrant.

The police officer must produce information that he gathered in order to obtain a warrant from the magistrate. Armed with his warrant the police officer could then make a legal arrest or enter a property as specified in the warrant.