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The Probable Cause Requirement in NJ Criminal Cases

Probable Cause Hudson County NJ Criminal Case

In New Jersey criminal cases, the probable cause requirement refers to the amount of suspicion that is required for police to conduct certain activities, like arresting someone or performing a search. Police must have a reasonable basis or grounds (“probable cause”) to effect an arrest or search an individual’s property, such as a home, place of business, or vehicle. 

Often, when a person is arrested and charged with a crime such as drug possession, intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance (CDS), unlawful possession of a weapon, or possession of CDS in a motor vehicle, they are left to wonder: was the search valid? Were my constitutional rights violated in some way? In these situations, probable cause becomes a critical element of the case and potentially, to the admissibility of the State’s evidence. Continue reading for a thorough explanation of probable cause and why it matters for your criminal charges in New Jersey. You can also contact our experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorneys at (201) 793-8018 for a free consultation about your specific case. 

What is Probable Cause?

The probable cause requirement stems from the Fourth Amendment’s declaration that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” as well as the prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures” included in the Bill of Rights. While there is no precise calculation to determine what is “enough probable cause,” courts generally define probable cause as the requirement that there be a reasonable basis to believe a crime was committed and, in the case of a search, that evidence will be found.

In a criminal case, probable cause is more than a “reasonable suspicion” – the standard to temporarily detain someone – and less than “beyond a reasonable doubt” – the standard to convict someone. In practice, police in New Jersey need to have probable cause to make an arrest, as well as to search or seize property. A judge must also find probable cause to issue a warrant for those purposes.

Probable Cause for Arrests

In New Jersey, all arrests must be made with probable cause, even when the police have a warrant to make the arrest. When looking at an arrest to determine if there was probable cause, courts use a “totality of the circumstances” test, which takes into account what the police knew or believed at the time about the circumstances.

To distinguish, the “detention” of a person – which is less than an arrest (like a car or pedestrian stop) – does not require probable cause, merely “reasonable suspicion” that a crime was occurring or that a search would reveal evidence of a crime.

In practical terms, if an arrest is made without probable cause, then the arrest violates that person’s constitutional rights. Most importantly, any evidence that arises during that unreasonable arrest will be suppressed in the case against that person. For instance, if someone makes a confession during an unlawful arrest, then an experienced criminal defense lawyer can argue to suppress that confession. If evidence is “suppressed,” the prosecution cannot present that evidence in court when attempting to prove their case against you. 

Did Police Have Probable Cause to Search? 

Probable cause to perform a search is present when there is a “fair probability” the search will lead to the discovery of evidence that a crime occurred. In other words, a “reasonable person” has to believe that a crime happened or that evidence will be there. When there is a warrant for the search, it must specify the place being searched and the items being searched for.

When a warrantless search happens, the State can establish probable cause in court after the search took place. For example, a person consented to a search and therefore, the police did not need a warrant. In many cases, an officer pulls someone over for a motor vehicle stop and subsequently requests consent to search their vehicle. The person may not be aware of their rights and thus, consent to the search. This situation is very common in New Jersey and often gives rise to charges for possession of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and drug paraphernalia.

Under usual circumstances, police need to have a judge sign off on a search before they do it, in the form of a “warrant,” which defines the parameters of the search or seizure of a person or place. For a search with a warrant, there is usually an affidavit or testimony that goes along with the warrant, which speaks to the probable cause behind the warrant. However, under the “exigent circumstances” doctrine, sometimes probable cause is enough, and police can conduct a warrantless search or seizure. Exigent circumstances are basically emergency situations, where there is imminent danger or escape.

Discuss Probable Cause for Your Hudson County Criminal Charges with an Experienced Defense Attorney

If you have been arrested, or your property was searched or seized in Hudson County, New Jersey, it is important to find out if the police’s actions violated your rights. The experienced criminal defense lawyers at Proetta & Oliver will thoroughly investigate your case to uncover any violations of your Fourth Amendment rights. We use our extensive knowledge of probable cause and other components of New Jersey criminal law to develop the most effective defenses for our clients. Find out more about how we can assist you by calling (201) 793-8018 today. One of our Hudson County criminal defense attorneys will be happy to provide you with a free consultation.