We all hear the term “probable cause” every time we watch Law and Order or any of our favorite crime shows. But what does it really mean? Probable cause is the major line in the sand of criminal law. It is how a Little Rock police officer is able to get from suspecting a crime is being committed—a mere “hunch”—to making an arrest. An officer’s personal hunch is not enough to make an arrest, even if his hunch is sincere. Interestingly, even if the “hunch” is right, that’s not enough to make the arrest.
In lawyer terms, this means that probable cause is an “objective standard” because it doesn’t matter what the officer believes or doesn’t believe.
For instance, someone in pink tights may have attacked the officer in the past, and so he or she may be really afraid of people in pink tights. If someone in pink tights starts running down the street, he or she may immediately believe that that person is committing a crime without any additional evidence. Even if the belief is sincere or even correct, pink tights are not probable cause.
There’s got to be more. The US Supreme Court was clear about this in Whren v. United States when it said that “[s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis.” That means that every law enforcement officer has to put off his or her own personal feelings and prejudices. So, even if he or she has very strong personal feelings about pink tights, that can’t be the basis for probable cause.
You have probable cause when all the facts that a cop knows are enough so that a normal person would believe that a crime has happened or is about to happen. In the case of a search, it’s similar: An officer has probable cause to make a search when a normal person could tell you what items need to be found and where they are.
If you’ve been arrested and you think that the officer did not have probable cause, that is very important and you should make sure your lawyer knows it. It might be the very thing that allows you to get out of going to jail.
Call us and we can help you figure out whether the officer had probable cause.