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Understanding probable cause

Most Pennsylvania residents have heard the term probable cause, but they may not know exactly what it means. Probable cause means that the authorities must have a reason to take a person into custody, search a person's property or seize certain property that may be associated with a crime. Additionally, prosecutors must also have probable cause before a person can be charged with a crime.

Because the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects a person's rights to privacy, the authorities must obtain a warrant in order to take a person into custody or to search their property unless they personally witness a crime take place. If a person is taken into custody, the authorities will be required to show probable cause after the incident. In order to obtain a warrant, the officer must demonstrate that they have probable cause that a crime has occurred by signing an affidavit. The judge must agree that there is probable cause before they will issue the warrant.

An officer can detain a person for a short period without probable cause; for example, they may conduct a vehicle stop or detain another person not thought to be involved in a crime when executing a search warrant against someone else. However, it should be noted that detentions could turn into arrests if they find probable cause to take the person into custody.

If a criminal defense attorney believes that a person was taken into custody and was charged without probable cause, they may help the person create a strong defense against the accusations. However, the defense strategy will depend on the circumstances surrounding the case. As such, an accused person should discuss their options with their attorney. If it is determined, however, that the authorities did not have probable cause, the case may potentially be dismissed.

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