Police Searches and Probable Cause

When the police have a reasonable articulable suspicion of illegal activity, they can detain someone and do a search. They must have probable cause if they want to arrest a person. If they believe that there is unlawful activity taking place, they might be able to search the car for guns. The police cannot search a vehicle for pulling somebody over for speeding and deciding to search the car.

If you believe you are being searched without probable cause, contact a DC criminal attorney to ensure your rights are protected during an investigation.

Defining Probable Cause

There must be a substantive reason for the officer to search the car. For example, if the police get a call about an individual waving a handgun around, they must have a specific description of the individual including what they are wearing, their height, their race, and things of that nature.

When the police respond to the location and come upon an individual near that location at about the same time who fits the description, the police may have a reasonable articulable suspicion that they found the person engaged in illegal conduct. In that situation, they can detain the person and search their car if they have information the gun is in the car. Absent that kind of specific information, the police must have a warrant to search a car or another basis to arrest a person who was found inside a car.

Protective Searches

There is a constitutional basis that allows police officers to do protective searches. They can pat down on the outside of the clothing of an individual to determine if there are any weapons or contraband on that person. The Terry pat down is for the officer’s safety. Initially, the pat down was just for weapons but it was extended.

When an officer feels something they believe to be drugs or drug paraphernalia, they can examine that as well. A Terry pat down cannot, however, be based on race. The police in New York City had a policy of stopping minorities on the street and to do a Terry pat down. That is targeting; the police cannot do that.

Searches Leading to Arrest

When the police are engaged in their official duties on the street and they are investigating the possibility of criminal activity, they can detain someone if they have a reason to do so. The police officers can do a Terry pat down, an outside inspection to see if the person has a firearm, weapons, drugs, or paraphernalia. When the officer has reason to believe that the person is involved in criminal activity and detains them, often the person is put in handcuffs. That is a big clue that the person is being detained.

When someone is being detained and the officer has probable cause to believe they committed an offense, the person is arrested and the officer does a more thorough search. In other words, they might put their hands inside of pockets, not just an outside of their clothing pat down. The officer does a more thorough search of that person. When a person is detained or arrested, they can expect the officer to engage in a more thorough inspection of their person to search for firearms or paraphernalia.