Posted on 2/20/17

Prior to making an arrest, seizing property, or conducting a search, police officers are required by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution to have probable cause. However, the Constitution does not define the term “probable cause.” Moreover, the United States Supreme Court stated that the term is imprecise and fluid and should be based on the facts and circumstances of each case. Over the years, courts have grappled with the proper circumstance for probable cause.

The Brown Case

The 1979 case ofBrown v. Texasunderscores this dilemma. In that case, a police patrol noticed two men walking away from each other in an alley one afternoon. The area was a high-crime zone known for rampant drug dealing. The police approached one of the men, Brown, and asked him to identify himself. Brown refused to comply with the request. The police arrested him for refusing to comply with a police officer, which was an offense in Texas when police “lawfully stopped him and requested the information.”

Brown asserted that the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the police lacked probable cause to arrest him. The prosecution countered that there was probable cause based on his suspicious activity in a high crime, drug-infested area.

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the Supreme Court held that the police violated Brown’s Fourth Amendment protection rights when they arrested him. The arrest constituted a seizure, which, under the Fourth Amendment, requires probable cause. Since the police lacked a reasonable belief that Brown committed a crime, there was no probable cause to arrest him.

As mentioned, the facts and circumstances of each case will determine whether a police seizure was the result of probable cause. Based on the Brown case, however, a mere hunch is not sufficient to create probable cause for an arrest.

Other Police Activities

Note that the probable cause standard is required for an arrest. It is not required, however, for short “detentions.” Detentions include car stops, stopping a pedestrian on the street, and detaining people while performing a legal search of a house. In those instances, the standard is reasonable suspicion, which means that specific facts exist that would lead a reasonable person to believe criminal activity was at hand and further investigation was required. Often these detentions ripen into arrests. For these arrests to be legal, the police must first stop the individual based on reasonable suspicion followed by a trigger for probable cause. If the circumstances never create probable cause, the arrest violates a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Often, a detention that turns into an arrest lacks the probable cause aspect, which a defendant would present at trial. A defendant can also redress an improper arrest by suing the police at a civil trial by claiming false arrest under Texas law.

If you have been arrested, know that you have Constitutionally-protected rights. You need an advocate who will aggressively defend those rights. Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified Texas criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Cole Patrick)

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