In Texas, probable cause is the standard of proof that must be applied for an arrest, warrant, search and seizure, or other such legal action to be undertaken. It can be loosely understood as meaning that a particular circumstance is more likely to have occurred than not to have occurred. Note that while probable cause allows a prosecutor to file criminal charges, the tougher reasonable doubt standard applies to conviction.
Probable Cause for Arrest
In Texas, a member of law enforcement can detain an individual based only on reasonable suspicion, which is a lower standard than probable cause, and loosely means that the officer suspects the individual committed or was about to commit a crime. This allows the officer to briefly interview the suspect and determine whether there is probable cause for arrest.
Regardless of the officer’s suspicions, the circumstances and facts that are gathered during the brief detention must support the standard of probable cause before the officer can proceed. No matter what he or she believes to have happened, no arrest can legally occur without probable cause.
Probable Cause for Search
To search a residence, law enforcement officers must have justification. These circumstances are considered justification in Texas:
1. Consent for a search is given by the owner or resident
2. The search is incident to a lawful arrest
3. The search is prompted by a life-threatening emergency
4. A valid search warrant has been obtained
A search warrant will not be issued without probable cause. The officer must have reason to believe that a specific individual committed a crime at the specific search location and that evidence of the crime exists in that location. Note that regardless of which justification exists, any evidence of a crime that is found during a lawful search may be seized.
Failure to Show Probable Cause
If an officer performs a search or an arrest, but cannot show probable cause, the court may dismiss evidence or refuse to file criminal charges. Likewise, a prosecutor cannot file charges without demonstrating probable cause.
There is no statute that specifically defines probable cause in Texas. Consequently, the standard is abstract and largely up to the interpretation of the court. Regardless, there must be circumstances or facts that would lead a “reasonable individual” to believe that a crime was or is about to be committed. Probable cause falls between reasonable suspicion and reasonable doubt, must be more than a simple hunch, and must be documentable.
Probable Cause for Vehicle Searches
Your vehicle can be searched without a warrant if probable cause exists, or if you consent to the search. The best example of this is the smell of marijuana. The smell of marijuana allows a police officer to search your vehicle anywhere marijuana can be found. Law enforcement officers are allowed to intimidate you or trick you into giving consent, and they are not required to inform you that you have the legal right to refuse. If you are pulled over and the officer asks to search your vehicle, clearly state that you do not consent to this or any search. If the officer searches your car anyway, you will need a criminal defense lawyer to file a motion to suppress the evidence or argue and fight for your right as an accused person to be free from unlawful search and siezures. If the judge agrees that the officer violated your right to refuse and did not establish probable cause, the motion will be granted, and it is likely that any charges against you will be dismissed.
Note that probable cause is ultimately determined by the courts, not law enforcement. An arresting officer may genuinely believe that he or she has probable cause, but the court may disagree. In addition, you do not have to be found guilty for probable cause to apply. Even if you did nothing wrong, the court may determine that probable cause existed for your search or arrest at the time it occurred.
Probable cause is complex and somewhat opaque. Therefore, it is always best to seek advice from a skilled criminal defense attorney who can file the appropriate motions and ensure that your rights are protected.
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If you are involved in a criminal or family case, past president of the Montgomery County Bar Association, Andrea Kolski, has the background you need to win. For more information or to schedule a consultation, contact Nonstop Justice today at 832-381-3430.