What is Probable Cause? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Probable Cause
  • 1:11 The 4th Amendment &…
  • 1:35 Probable Cause Examples
  • 2:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

After you complete this lesson, you will understand what constitutes probable cause. You will also review examples and understand when probable cause is justified through various hypothetical scenarios.

Definition of Probable Cause

Probable cause is the basis that police must have in order to make an arrest, perform a search of a person or property, or obtain a warrant. It is a standard that officers must meet to show reasonable grounds to believe that a crime was committed. In other words, the police cannot just have the suspicion of a crime. There must be some reasoning in order to make an arrest, perform a search or get a warrant.

The best way to understand the concept of probable cause is to use an example. Let's say that Annie owns a grocery store which has been burglarized. Annie contacts the police who are dispatched to the grocery store. The police find broken windows and items strewn about the floor. Annie tells the police that the burglar had a red car and a blue bag that he put ten purple cell phones into. The officers walk around the block where they see a red car speeding. The officers pull the car over based on its speeding and see on the seat that there is an opened blue bag with ten purple cell phones inside. The officers have probable cause to arrest the driver because even though they did not witness the actual burglary, the description of the car and the missing property corresponds to Annie's details. Consequently, the driver is arrested.

The 4th Amendment & Probable Cause

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution governs probable cause and requires that police have probable cause when making arrests, searching property and obtaining search warrants. Under the Fourth Amendment, you have a right to privacy and to be free of arbitrary searches unless they are constitutionally authorized. The probable cause standard provides you with protection against random and discretionary searches and seizures.

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