“Probable Cause”: How is it established?

Following up on the definition of “probable cause,” it is important to note some of the facts or circumstances that have been held to, or not to, establish probable cause.

For example, running away or “flight” does not, by itself, establish probable cause. Neither do “furtive” hand or head movements in a vehicle. Nervousness, inconsistent answers to questions by police, gatherings on street corners, presence in a “high drug area ” throwing away items in your possession, a “transaction” on the street, looking at police (or looking away from them), refusing to “cooperate” or consent to a police activity, or mere presence with others allegedly involved in crime do not, either. A police officer’s “chanced” observation of a “single, isolated exchange of some currency for some unidentified item or items, taking place on a public street at midday,” was not sufficient to establish probable cause even where the suspect also fled from police. I actually had a case where a client was pulled over because he avoided eye contact with the police at an intersection. It turned out that staring at the officer would have also furnished reason for him to pull my client over!

However, the cases in Pennsylvania conflict regarding how many of the above factors must be present to establish probable cause. In one case, a transaction that occurred on the street at night in a high drug trafficking area. Ordinarily, this would not be enough. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that when such evidence is viewed through the lens of police experience, and the testifying officer is able to explain and justify the arrest in light of his or her experience and the conduct observed, then probable cause may be found. However, an exchange of objects and flight, two suspects speaking with each other on the sidewalk in a high drug area, and a transaction by itself are not sufficient to establish probable cause (although they may establish reasonable suspicion!)

If all of this sounds confusing, it is. This is a good reason why you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner when you find yourself in trouble with the authorities. The criminal defense team at Prince Law Offices stands ready to aid you should you need us.

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