Another police shooting was in the news recently, this time in Milwaukee where law enforcement officers shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith. Reports on how the incident spurred protests and general unrest in certain parts of Milwaukee, due to the perception that police acted unlawfully under the circumstances. The officers claim that they had probable cause to pull over Smith’s car and that they opened fire only when Smith attempted to evade them, while brandishing a firearm. The matter remains under investigation, but it raises questions about probable cause and police officers’ duties when detaining someone.
What is probable cause? The concept of probable cause stems from the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Criminal Cases often focus on the “reasonableness” aspect when a law enforcement officer stops and detains an individual. In general, police may stop an individual if there are specific facts that justify detention; a good faith hunch is not sufficient to avoid Fourth Amendment implications. Landmark court cases typically point to the distinction between a reasonable belief versus a reasonable suspicion.
How are reasonable belief and reasonable suspicion different? Reasonable belief will support the probable cause an officer needs to arrest or search someone. If police, in exercising proper caution, believe that criminal activity is taking place or will in the near future, sufficient probable cause exists. The officer can arrest the person or conduct additional investigation without violating the Fourth Amendment. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard, but it’s enough to support a police stop.
The Smith case is useful in demonstrating the difference between the two. An officer can properly stop Smith’s car under the reasonable suspicion that he was violating the law, such as by swerving or failing to stop at a red light. It’s not necessary that an officer have probable cause to arrest Smith at the time he was pulled over. Reasonable suspicion justifies the stop; reasonable belief is necessary to support an arrest or search.
What happens if there was no probable cause? If there wasn’t probable cause to arrest or conduct a search of Smith, there may be a violation of the Fourth Amendment search and seizure provisions. In such a case, any evidence obtained pursuant to an illegal search cannot be used in court. The reasoning is that these facts would not come to light if the police had acted properly and adhered to the probable cause standard. For instance, if it’s determined that officers didn’t have probable cause to search Smith, any drugs, guns, or other contraband would be excluded at his trial.
In California, law enforcement officers must have probable cause to detain you or they risk having all evidence thrown out of court due to violations of your civil rights. If you’re facing criminal charges where probable cause was in question, you need a lawyer with experience in criminal cases to represent your interests in court. To protect your Fourth Amendment rights, please contact an awarded criminal lawyer in San Diego who can present your defenses in California court.
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