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What constitutes 'probable cause' in a criminal case?

One of the cornerstones of the U.S. law enforcement system is that police are not supposed to be able to place a person in custody without probable cause.

That's such a common term that many people in Chicago may think they know what it means, but do they really? If you're not sure, read on. If after that you have concerns related to the subject, it may be time to contact a criminal defense attorney.

Probable cause, as the FindLaw website describes, is that requirement in law that prevents authorities from arresting you, searching you or your belongings or seizing any property in connection with an alleged crime without a warrant. 

The particulars of the tenet are framed in the Constitution's Fourth Amendment which states that police have to articulate to a judge what cause they feel they have to conduct a search or make an arrest. Specific to search warrants, the amendment makes clear that authorities must provide particulars about the person, place or thing that is to be searched.

The same requirement of probable cause holds for prosecutors to proceed with charging a person with a crime.

There can be exceptions to the rules above, however. For example, if an officer witnesses a felony and makes an arrest as a result, the Supreme Court has ruled that that can be considered a "reasonable" circumstance for straying from the warrant requirement. But probable cause still has to be provided afterward.

All of what has been said so far might raise questions among some about where police detention falls in the spectrum of law enforcement action. Detentions differ from arrests in that they require only "reasonable suspicion" that some criminal activity might be underway and need investigating. Traffic stops would fall under this heading, as would detentions of individuals during the execution of a search warrant.

Still, there are limits to how long detentions can last. If police violate those limits, it could be cause for legal challenge.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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