Probable Cause in North Carolina Criminal Law

The phrase “probable cause” comes to us directly from the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment embodies the notion of privacy rights by forbidding police (or other agents of the government) from searching people or their property without good reason. Specifically, the text says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Translate, please!

This is written in the legal phrasing of the 18th century, so it’s reasonable to take a moment to figure out what the Amendment means. In modern, conversational English, we could reinterpret the text as follows:
People have a right to privacy and should expect that nobody will search their bodies, homes, records, or other possessions without a good reason. If government investigators want to search some person, place, or thing to look for evidence of a crime, they will have to convince a judge or magistrate to issue a warrant based on sworn or affirmed testimony. The warrant will be very specific about the location to be searched and the items that may be taken in evidence.

That still doesn’t tell me what “probable cause” means

The meaning of “probable cause” has developed over time, as a series of court cases challenged government’s power to conduct searches. A fair definition would be “sufficient reason for a prudent person to conclude that a criminal offense has been committed or that a particular object has a connection to a criminal act.” Probable cause is a tougher standard to meet than “reasonable suspicion”—the former requires more evidence, or better evidence, and a greater degree of certainty.

Probable cause is minimum justification a law enforcement officer needs to take certain actions, including:

  • Detaining someone.
  • Patting down the outside of your clothing.
  • Ordering a vehicle to pull over.
  • Searching inside your vehicle despite your objections.
  • Obtaining a warrant for a search of a person or location.
  • Obtaining a warrant for an arrest.

Police rely on four main justifications to explain why their actions were motivated by probable cause rather than mere suspicion:

  • Information. A witness, crime victim, or informant has said something which throws suspicion on a particular individual. The police officer need not have received this information directly from the source; for example, getting a description of a truck involved in a hit-and-run accident from the police dispatcher is sufficient to create probable cause when an officer later sees the vehicle.
  • Observation. The police officer saw an object, witnessed behavior, heard a sound, or used another sense that indicated a crime had been committed or was in progress. For example, a cop might smell the odor of marijuana from a car he pulled over for a routine traffic stop, or may see a handgun poorly concealed under a coat in the back seat.
  • Professional expertise. Police are trained to recognize gang insignia, to identify carjacking tools, and to apply other categories of expert knowledge the typical layperson lacks.
  • Circumstantial evidence. This is evidence that suggests criminal activity but does not directly prove it. For example, the discovery of a paroled criminal who had previously committed armed robbery a few blocks away from a robbery crime scene would naturally throw suspicion on the parolee, even though other explanations are possible.

Violations of probable cause

The probable cause standard is an essential part of the criminal justice process in North Carolina. If the police conduct a search or seizure without having met the standard of probable cause, then your New Hanover County criminal defense attorney may be able to get that evidence excluded from your trial—or even get the charges dismissed due to procedural mistakes.

At Speaks Law Firm, we strongly believe that all persons arrested for criminal violations deserve a robust defense. Our Wilmington felony defense lawyers will insist on the full protection of due process for our clients. If you, your child, or your friend has been accused of a criminal offense in North Carolina, call Speaks Law Firm at 910-341-7570 or 877-593-4233 (toll-free statewide) to learn how we can work toward the best available outcome for the case.

R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.