What is Probable Cause and What Does it Mean in Florida?
Most people are aware of the basic concept behind protection from unlawful search and seizure and how it is embedded in the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but they are not aware of the finer mechanics of this concept. The general rule is that seizures of property or searches are unlawful. Unless “probable cause” exists, and this is true even when a search or arrest is being carried out under a warrant. Determining whether probable cause was present is a task frequently undertaken by Florida criminal defense attorneys seeking to ensure their client's rights.
The Definition of Probable Cause
A law enforcement officer or a judge may be in a position to determine probable cause. When a warrant has been obtained before a search is conducted, the judge who approved the warrant has made the initial finding of probable cause. In Florida, this is governed by Rule 3.120 and Florida Statute 933.07, both of which empower the judge to find probable cause when issuing search warrants.
When a law enforcement officer makes this determination, it's based on a belief that the circumstances and facts within his or her available knowledge would lead a reasonable person to believe two things:
- that a criminal offense has been committed; and
- that the potential arrestee committed the offense.
In terms of property, probable cause is defined as when the circumstances and facts at play would lead a reasonable person to assume that the property is stolen, contraband, or otherwise evidence linked to a crime and that the property is likely to be found in the property that will be searched.
What is a Reasonable Person?
The “reasonable person” tests are objective and are based on the concept that such a reasonable person would have the same information as the law enforcement officer actually involved in the case.
What Rules Govern the Application of Probable Cause and Arrests?
In Florida, there are several statutes related to the application of probable cause. Generally, a law enforcement officer must observe events that lead him or her to determine that probable cause exists. Otherwise, a law enforcement officer generally needs to convince a judge to issue an arrest warrant. However, a law enforcement officer can arrest someone without having observed any events and without an arrest warrant if that officer determines that the person has committed a criminal act under one of the following statutes:
- Florida Statute 790.233: related to possession of ammunition, firearms, or when a person is subject to injunctions against committing acts of stalking, domestic violence, or cyberstalking
- Florida Statute 741.31: related to violation of an injunction for a domestic violence protection order
- Florida Statute 784.07: related to violating a protective order for sexual violence, repeat violence, or sexual violence
Situations where an arrest warrant is absent tend to be very complex and thus are discussed often in case law (decisions of appellate courts). For example, in the Wong Sun V. U.S. Case, it was found that the reliability of information on which an officer can act cannot be any less stringent than situations where an arrest warrant is obtained. This is only one example of the continuous attempt to interpret the Fourth Amendment.
Protection from unreasonable search, seizure, or arrest as a result of lack of probable cause involves advocacy from committed criminal defense attorneys in Florida. The law continues to evolve from higher appellate courts. Lawyers must continuously educate themselves and read the rulings of higher courts in order to fight for their clients. Experienced criminal defense attorneys who work to uphold the rights of charged individuals in court may file motions to suppress or motions to dismiss if it becomes apparent that the individual's constitutional rights were not protected. At Koberlein Law Offices we constantly read the rulings of higher courts and spend our own time and money attending training when we are not in the courts fighting for our clients.