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Probable cause

Probable cause is a legal term used in most common law American criminal law jurisdictions that denotes the standard by which a police officer may conduct a personal or property search, or an arrest. This term comes from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The most widely held definition is "a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed". However, this definition is controversial. A proposed alternate definition is "reason to believe that an injury had criminal cause".

In the United States a probable cause hearing is the preliminary hearing that typically takes place after arraignment and before a serious crime goes to trial; the judge is presented with the basis of the prosecution's case and the defendant is afforded full right of cross-examination and the right to be represented by legal counsel. If the prosecution cannot make out a case of probable cause the court must dismiss the case against the accused. See also: evidentiary hearing.

Summary of the Controversy

The controversy over the classic definition of probable cause can be catagorized in the following areas:

This all must be understood in the context of the times of the American Revolution. These conditions are detailed in the Declaration of Independance. Civil libertarians argue that the corruption of this definition over time, deviating from what the original authors had intended, is one primary factors which has allowed near police state conditions to arise in America.

Please see the Lawful Arrest FAQ for a more rigorous discusson of these topics.

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