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Understanding probable cause for arrests and searches

One of the most helpless feelings a person could experience occurs when a police officer wraps the handcuffs around your wrists. You are no longer free to go or do what you want, and you are at the mercy of law enforcement. If this has happened to you, your first instinct may be to struggle to get free, and your next thought is to know why you are under arrest.

Law enforcement officers must have a reason to arrest you. The U.S. Constitution calls this reason "probable cause." Probable cause is the crux of many police actions, including searching you, your house or your vehicle, or seizing any of your property. Without probable cause, New York police are likely violating your rights if they perform any of these actions.

Probable cause for your arrest

Police work is often about following instincts and playing hunches. However, hunches and gut feelings are not enough to justify your arrest. Officers must have information that would bring a reasonable person to the conclusion that you are somehow involved in a criminal act. The circumstances and the facts must point to that conclusion.

This is not the same as a detention, for example if an officer stops your vehicle and makes you wait while he or she obtains a search warrant. However, a detention can quickly evolve into an arrest, and you may not realize it has happened. This is why it is critical to exercise your right to remain silent even before police handcuff you.

Warrants for searches and seizures

Just as police need probable cause to arrest you, they must also have cause to obtain a warrant to search you, your vehicle or your home. The warrant must specifically name the location police intend to search and the items police expect to find. However, police may conduct a search without a warrant under the following circumstances:

  • Police have already arrested you, and their search relates to that arrest.
  • The situation is an emergency in which police believe the public is in danger.
  • Police are concerned that waiting for a warrant will place evidence at risk of destruction.
  • You grant police consent to search.

Other situations may exist for which police will not need to obtain a warrant to conduct a legal search, so it is wise to seek legal counsel as soon as possible after a search or arrest. This way, your attorney can carefully examine the circumstances surrounding the police action and challenge any evidence obtained illegally.

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