Probable cause is a sometimes murky principle that police use as the basis for many searches, resulting in many arrests. Probable cause is the reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. However, police use this concept as a broad umbrella to justify actions that, under scrutiny, may not meet the bar of “reasonable.”
Common uses of “probable cause”
Police look for a wide range of indicators that they may interpret as probable cause. In a given traffic stop, a police officer may report:
- The smell of marijuana
- Suspicious or guilty behavior
- Confrontational interactions
- Appearance of impairment
Any of the above may seem like a reasonable reason to continue a search or investigate an individual further. But, under scrutiny, many “observations” are fraught with assumptions and biases.
How is nervousness evidence of a crime?
There are dozens of explanations for a person’s appearance or even their smell. Yes, a crime is one of them. However, by looking at a person’s nervousness or emotional state, police make a significant logical leap.
Additionally, one key part of being “confrontational” with police is refusing to answer questions. However, refusing to answer any questions is a constitutional right, and it cannot be the basis of a search.
Protect your rights, and understand your actions.
Your rights are fundamental, and if the police overstep their authority, you must react appropriately. A key aspect of your reaction is to remain calm and comply. You may politely affirm your 5th Amendment rights and then – once you do that – remain silent.
Probable cause is a judgment call made by the police and validated (or invalidated) in court by your attorney – not a debating point to be settled on the street. All you have to do at first is stop from letting your words form the basis for a search.