What Is Probable Cause in a Criminal Case?

Probable cause is a crucial concept that safeguards citizens from arbitrary intrusions by law enforcement while simultaneously empowering authorities to investigate legitimate criminal activity. In South Carolina, as in other states, this legal cornerstone acts as a fundamental pillar upholding the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But what exactly constitutes probable cause, and how does it play out in real-world scenarios? This blog examines the legal intricacies of this concept, and explains how a Greenville, South Carolina criminal defense lawyer can make sure your rights are respected and protected.

Understanding the Core of Probable Cause

At its core, probable cause signifies a reasonable belief, backed by articulable facts or circumstances, that an individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

This standard demands more than mere suspicion or hunch; it needs to be backed by objective evidence or reliable information sufficient to convince a neutral and cautious person that the suspicion is warranted.

The South Carolina Landscape

The legal framework for probable cause in South Carolina is primarily established in Title 23 of the South Carolina Code of Laws specifically concerning criminal procedure.

In our state, courts have consistently emphasized the objective nature of probable cause. The Supreme Court of South Carolina reiterated that it “is not a license to arrest for every offense in a general way upon vague grounds or suspicions but is required to rest upon facts and circumstances known to the officer of such a character that they would convince a reasonably cautious person that a crime had been or was being committed.”

This emphasis on articulable facts and circumstances is central to determining the validity of police actions.

For instance, the South Carolina Code of Laws authorizes an officer to arrest without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe someone has committed a felony. However, simply observing someone matching a vague description of a suspect would not be sufficient to meet this standard.

Application in Context

The concept of probable cause extends beyond simply justifying arrests, playing a vital role in various aspects of criminal investigations, with nuanced applications depending on the situation:

police officers do not always need a warrant to stop you

Issuing Search Warrants

A judge can only issue a search warrant if there is probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found at a specific location. This typically involves an affidavit from the officer outlining the basis for their belief.

For example, if an officer witnesses someone leaving a store with a stolen item and entering a specific apartment, this provides stronger probable cause for a search warrant of that apartment compared to merely knowing the suspect’s general neighborhood.

Conducting Warrantless Searches

Under limited circumstances, such as exigent circumstances where evidence might be destroyed or a person harmed, officers may conduct warrantless searches if they have probable cause.

Officers are allowed to enter a home without a warrant if they hear screams coming from inside, suggesting potential domestic violence. However, simply smelling marijuana emanating from a car wouldn’t be enough to justify a warrantless search.

Seizing Evidence

Probable cause is also necessary for seizing evidence, whether during an arrest, a search, or other investigative activities.

For example, if an officer arrests someone for drug possession based on observing them selling drugs to another person, any illegal drugs found on the arrested individual can be seized as evidence.

However, if the arrest stems from a vague tip about suspicious activity without specific details, any evidence seized might be deemed inadmissible in court due to lack of probable cause.

Traffic Stops

Probable cause plays a crucial role in lawful traffic stops. An officer can pull someone over if they have a reason to believe the driver is violating traffic laws or committing another crime.

For example, observing a car swerving across lanes or exceeding the speed limit provides sufficient probable cause for a traffic stop. However, stopping a vehicle solely because it matches the description of a car potentially involved in a crime wouldn’t necessarily be justified without additional supporting evidence.

A Greenville Criminal Defense Attorney Can Protect Your Rights

Understanding probable cause is crucial for both citizens and law enforcement alike. Citizens gain essential knowledge about their rights and protections against unfair intrusions. Law enforcement, on the other hand, are equipped with the legal framework to effectively investigate crime while respecting individual liberties.

Ultimately, adhering to the standard of probable cause strikes a delicate balance between public safety and individual rights. It ensures that law enforcement interventions are grounded in reason and evidence, not arbitrary suspicion, paving the way for a fairer and more just criminal justice system in South Carolina.

If you have been involved in a criminal matter in which you believe law enforcement overstepped, do not hesitate to contact a Greenville, South Carolina criminal defense attorney at  Baldwin Law at 864-630-8503. We offer a free evaluation and are here to protect and safeguard your rights.

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