Establishing Probable Cause

Establishing probable cause can present challenges to an officer who’s writing a police or corrections report. The good news is that three simple guidelines can help you establish probable cause and produce a professional report.

What is probable cause, and when do you need to document it? Probable cause can be defined as “reasonable grounds for making a search, or pressing a charge”; another definition is “a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime.” You can think of probable cause as your reason for intervening in a scene: Stopping a driver, entering a house, questioning a suspect, conducting a search.

Not every report requires you to document probable cause. If you were dispatched to a scene or incident, or a citizen asks you for help, you can easily establish your reason for being there. Probable cause becomes more complicated when you initiate the action yourself: You saw or heard something suspicious and decided to intervene.

Three steps are necessary. First, you have to establish why you were at that location. Second, you have to find detailed and convincing justification for getting involved. Third, you need to be able to describe what you saw or heard.

1. Why were you there? Some agencies frown on statements like “I was on routine patrol.” Better wording might be something like “While I was driving south on Pine Street….” or “As I was returning to the station house.”

2. What caught your attention? Wording like “acting suspiciously” or “something wasn’t right” is likely to be challenged in court. You have to note what was unusual about the suspect’s appearance or behavior, or what struck you as out of place about the scene. Examples might include:

  • a man was running down the street and looking over his left shoulder
  • you heard screaming
  • a light was burning in an building that was closed for business
  • a woman was struggling to pull away from the man who was walking with her

3. Can you describe what you saw or heard? Providing facts and details can go a long way to establishing probable cause and prevailing if your actions are challenged in court.

A famous example of effective probable cause is the 2007 traffic stop that led to the apprehension of polygamous leader Warren Jeffs for violating Utah’s rape statute. Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Eddie Dutchover pulled over the car in which Jeffs was riding because no registration was visible.

While Trooper Dutchover was talking to the driver and passengers, he thought something was amiss. Dutchover called for a backup and conducted a search. He soon discovered that the back-seat passenger was a federal fugitive, and a search of the car yielded computer equipment, disguises, and documents that were later used to convict Jeffs.

Jeffs’ attorney challenged the search in court–but Trooper Dutchover prevailed because he clearly described the behavior that had caught his attention: An artery was pulsating in Jeffs’ neck, and Jeffs wouldn’t make eye contact or give his name. Dutchover also recorded in his report the conflicting answers that the driver and other passenger gave to Dutchover’s questions.

Training yourself to document probable cause is one of the keys to a successful report and, often, a prosecution.

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