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PROBABLE CAUSE: WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that people cannot be subject to warrantless searches and seizures without probable cause. A person is “seized” “only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen” (Golphin v. State, 945 So 2d 1174 (Fla., 2006). But, what really does the term probable cause mean? The best examples may come from how the term is applied in Driving Under the Influence (DUI) cases and a comparison with the “reasonable suspicion” standard.

Reasonable Suspicion

According to Florida law, police officers cannot legally stop your car and detain you for investigation of a DUI unless they have “reasonable suspicion” that you are driving under the influence. Reasonable suspicion, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, means that law enforcement officers can stop and detain a person only if the detention is brief and the officer has a “reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts” that the driver is impaired. The stop is not legal if it is based simply on an officer’s hunch. Courts look to the “totality of the circumstances” leading up to the stop to determine if it was reasonable or not, and each case is decided on its own individual facts.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is a more stringent standard than reasonable suspicion. It means that law enforcement officers can only arrest or search a person if the ‘the facts and circumstances within their (the officers’) knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that’ an offense has been or is being committed.” State v. Betz, 815 So.2d 627, 633 (Fla.2002)  Officers can only conduct a seizure, whether it is seizing and arresting a person or seizing evidence of a crime, without a warrant “if they have sufficient facts and circumstances as would lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence or contraband relating to criminal activity will be found in the location to be searched.”

Officers must be able to recite those specific facts and existing circumstances leading up to the seizure that caused them to believe criminal activity was either in progress, had just occurred or was about to occur. If the officer cannot articulate the facts which formed the basis of reasonable suspicion of for probable cause, the detention or arrest will be unconstitutional as well as in violation of Florida law. A Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer will review your case and determine if a motion to suppress any illegally obtained evidence is appropriate.

If you were stopped and arrested for a DUI, or arrested for any other criminal offense for which you feel there was not probable cause, contact us at the Law Office of James Davis, P.A. as soon as possible so you can begin working with an experienced Jacksonville defense attorney.

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