Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a police officer can only arrest someone if the officer has a valid arrest warrant, or the officer has probable cause to do so.
The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect citizens from unlawful search and seizure by police. Arresting someone without probable cause is a violation of their civil rights and the arresting officer and police force may be civilly liable for damages.
What is probable cause?
Generally, a police officer has probable cause to arrest you if he or she has a reasonable belief that you were involved in a crime. Officers may establish probable cause in a variety of ways including observations, statements made by victims or witnesses, expertise or personal knowledge, circumstantial evidence indicating that a crime was likely committed
Probable cause is more than just a hunch or suspicion. The facts and circumstances must indicate to a reasonable officer in a similar situation that the person was involved in criminal activity.
Establishing probable cause in court
Proving that the person who was arrested was innocent does not prove that the officer did not have probable cause to arrest them in the first place. In other words, even if the police officer was wrong about the person’s involvement in the crime, the court may still decide that the officer did not violate their Fourth Amendment rights.
The court will consider various factors when determining whether the officer had probable cause to arrest the person, including:
- Previous cases that the arresting officer worked on
- The officer’s prior experience with similar situations
- Interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment
- Circumstances surrounding the case
Civil rights lawsuits, including ones involving unlawful arrests, can be difficult to win. However, if your rights have been violated, an experienced civil rights attorney can help you recover monetary damages from the officers who arrested you.