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What Constitutes Probable Cause for a Search in Drug Possession Cases?

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What is the Role of Probable Cause in a Tennessee Drug Possession Case?

Drug possession cases hinge upon whether an individual knowingly had possession of an illegal substance or paraphernalia on their person or in an area that was under their control, such as their home or car. Officers must perform a search and find illegal substances as the first step in proving possession. However, law enforcement agents must conduct the search in accordance with your Fourth Amendment rights for the evidence to be admissible in court. If the officer did not have probable cause to obtain a warrant or to perform a warrantless search under one of the legally recognized exceptions, your legal team may be able to have the evidence suppressed. An experienced Tennessee drug possession defense lawyer can examine your case and ensure your Constitutional rights are upheld.

How Does the Fourth Amendment Protect You From Illegal Searches and Seizures?

The Fourth Amendment safeguards individuals in the U.S. from unreasonable searches of their homes, persons, belongings, and other private items. To conduct a legal search, law enforcement officers usually must obtain a warrant by establishing probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation. Warrants must describe in detail the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized to be valid. Even with a warrant, the search must still be “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, and the scope and manner of the search must be clearly defined.

How is Probable Cause Defined?

Probable cause for a search in drug possession cases is a fact-based belief by a law enforcement officer that someone has committed or is about to commit a crime.

Probable cause is a higher standard than “reasonable suspicion” and requires more concrete evidence that a crime has been committed. The officer’s belief must be more than a guess and be based on specific, articulable facts that make it more likely than not that a crime has occurred and evidence will be found. General suspicion or knowledge of a person’s criminal history alone is insufficient. Police officers can use observational evidence, information from witnesses or informants, circumstantial evidence, and evidence based on police expertise to determine probable cause.

What Are Examples of Probable Cause in a Drug Possession Case?

Police must establish probable cause to search for drugs during a traffic stop, while responding to a call, or in other circumstances when interacting with the public. The existence of probable cause is a frequently disputed topic in drug possession cases because it is often based solely upon the officer’s recollection of events in their report.

Commonly cited examples of probable cause which could lead to a search for drugs include:

  • Smelling marijuana or other illegal substances on the individual or their vehicle.
  • Noticing behavior or physical signs that could reasonably indicate the use of drugs, such as dilated pupils or slurred speech.
  • Seeing drugs or paraphernalia out in the open in a vehicle or home.
  • Receiving a confidential tip that the individual was possessing, using, or selling contraband.

Under What Circumstances Can Police Officers Search an Individual’s Belongings Without a Warrant?

Over the years, the Supreme Court has upheld some exclusions to the warrant requirement. However, in the same way that showing probable cause is necessary to obtain a search warrant, the officers involved in a warrantless search will need to demonstrate that they had a legitimate reason to believe the individual had committed or was going to commit a crime.

Instances where an officer with probable cause may be justified in conducting a warrantless search may include:

  • When illegal objects are in “plain view”: If an officer is lawfully present and can immediately see incriminating evidence, they can seize it without a warrant. This exception applies to items on private property and in public areas.
  • Under “exigent circumstances”: If officers believe that evidence of a crime could be destroyed or the public’s safety is potentially at risk, they may have the right to perform a search.
  • When the search is incident to arrest: When making a lawful arrest, the police can conduct a warrantless search of the arrestee’s person and the area within their immediate control to ensure no weapons are concealed and to preserve evidence that may be needed for trial. Crucially, an arrest must be made before the search may occur, meaning this exception does not apply to non-criminal infractions, such as traffic citations.

Very few situations exist where probable cause may not be required for a search. For example, if an individual willingly gives their permission for officers to search their home, car, or belongings, then they no longer possess the reasonable expectation of privacy that the Fourth Amendment protects. However, if consent to a search is coerced or obtained through threats, it is not legal, and any evidence obtained could be excluded from the court case. Individuals on probation may be subject to searches at any time as part of the terms of their release. The same exclusion applies to individuals with an active arrest warrant.

What Can You Do if You Were Subjected to an Illegal Search?

Evidence obtained through an unreasonable or illegal search may be barred from court under the “exclusionary rule.” The exclusionary rule provides a remedy for unconstitutional searches and seizures and deters police misconduct. A defendant can file a motion to exclude evidence obtained through a search conducted without probable cause. The defendant must demonstrate that the officers did not act in “good faith” and blatantly disregarded the Fourth Amendment rules for a search and seizure.

It is critical to take prompt legal action if you believe you have been subjected to a search for drugs that violated your legal rights. Contact the Law Office of Hibbeler & Associates today at 931-236-2711 to schedule a free 30-minute case evaluation and learn about your options.

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