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Probable Cause in CA: Arrests & Searches Explained (2024)

In California, probable cause operates as a fundamental principle within the criminal justice system. The standard of probable cause serves as a critical safeguard against arbitrary arrests and searches, ensuring that law enforcement actions are based on reasonable suspicion supported by evidence.
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What is Probable Cause?

According to Cornell Law, probable cause is a requirement found in the Fourth Amendment that must usually be met before police make an arrest, conduct a search, or receive a warrant [1].

Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. Definition and Purpose: Probable cause is the standard that determines whether there’s a reasonable basis for believing that a crime has been committed. It ensures that law enforcement actions are justified and not arbitrary, safeguarding individuals’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  2. Arrests and Searches: For an arrest, probable cause typically involves sufficient evidence or facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has occurred. Similarly, for a search, probable cause arises when there’s evidence linking the crime to the place to be searched.
  3. Exigent Circumstances: In urgent situations where there’s an immediate threat or risk, such as the imminent destruction of evidence or danger to public safety, law enforcement may conduct a warrantless search or seizure based on probable cause.
  4. Judicial Review: Individuals arrested without a warrant must be promptly brought before a competent authority for a judicial determination of probable cause. This ensures that any deprivation of liberty is subject to judicial oversight and review.
  5. Factors Considered: Courts consider various factors when assessing probable cause, including witness statements, physical evidence, observations by law enforcement officers, and the totality of circumstances surrounding the situation.
  6. Protection of Rights: Probable cause serves as a crucial protection of individuals’ constitutional rights, preventing arbitrary arrests and searches by requiring law enforcement to demonstrate a reasonable belief in criminal activity before taking action.

In summary, probable cause plays a vital role in balancing law enforcement’s investigative powers with individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom from unreasonable government intrusion. It upholds the principles of fairness and justice within the criminal justice system.

When Does Probable Cause Apply in California?

Understanding Probable Cause in California
Probable cause denotes a reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime or the presence of evidence at a particular location. This leads to the inquiry of what defines “probable cause” and its application—an area often scrutinized by California criminal defense lawyers.

Demonstrating the absence of probable cause during your arrest or property search and seizure could significantly undermine any case against you, a tactic frequently employed by defense attorneys.

In essence, law enforcement and the state must adhere to your constitutional rights during legal proceedings, irrespective of your innocence or guilt.

So, what precisely constitutes “probable cause” in criminal proceedings? It’s evidence that would convince a rational individual that a crime occurred or that specific locations hold evidence of illegal activity.

In California, probable cause can manifest in various situations, such as:

Was there probable cause for your arrest by the police?

  • Did they possess sufficient probable cause to detain you post a traffic stop?
  • Did law enforcement furnish adequate probable cause to a judge for a search warrant?
  • Did the prosecutor present compelling probable cause for you to face criminal charges post a preliminary hearing?
  • An aspect often misconstrued is probable cause concerning traffic stops, where police only need “reasonable suspicion,” a less stringent standard than probable cause.

In essence, for a traffic stop, police merely require a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation under any section of the California Vehicle Code. This standard notably applies in DUI cases.

California Probable Cause Examples

According to Forbes, various scenarios can constitute probable cause, justifying a search or an arrest [2]. Here are some prevalent instances:

  • During a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer spots drug paraphernalia on the front seat or notices the driver displaying signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech, indicating a potential DUI. This observation provides probable cause for a vehicle search or arrest.
  • An officer witnesses an individual pointing a gun at a convenience store employee during an apparent robbery, offering clear probable cause for arrest.
  • Following a report of domestic violence, an officer visits a residence and discovers weapons and bruises on the alleged victim, establishing probable cause for a home search. Additionally, if the evidence suggests criminal activity, it warrants an arrest.
  • Probable cause may stem from officers directly witnessing evidence hinting at criminal behavior or credible reports of misconduct from reliable sources.

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