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When do police need probable cause to search?

| May 25, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Contrary to how entertainment portrays arrests, police in Illinois cannot do anything they want. They cannot search a vehicle or make arrests just because they have a suspicion of criminal activity. They must establish probable cause, a key component of searches and arrests.

Overview of probable cause

Probable cause extends beyond reasonable doubt that a person committed a crime. A landmark case in 1978 helped bring attention to the “totality of circumstance” and the importance of probable cause. Totality of circumstance indicates that the officer made the arrest based on all factors known to the case.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that officers can only make arrests or searches with probable cause. The court also has to determine that probable cause exists case by case; without evidence, criminal defense may argue that probable cause to make an arrest or perform a search didn’t exist.

Probable cause and search warrants

The U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizure, and many jurisdictions require warrants to search property or vehicles. Judges determine if the evidence that police present is enough to prove that the defendant committed a crime. The evidence often comes from trusted informants or an officer’s observations.

Officers commonly present this information in affidavits, or written statements that the officer swears are true. Officers can also apply for an anticipatory search warrant, which is a warrant issued when they know a crime will happen in the future.

There are very few exceptions where officers may conduct warrantless searches. For example, if an officer spots evidence in plain view, such as illegal drugs on the dashboard of a car, they do not need a warrant. This is because a vehicle doesn’t have the same expectation of privacy as a home.

Even with a legal search warrant, an officer must follow certain rules and treat suspects respectfully. If a person feels that their rights have been violated and mistakes have been made, an attorney may be able to assist.