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The principle of probable cause

South Carolina residents may have heard of the legal term "probable cause." It refers in part to the rights of individuals granted by the Fourth Amendment when it comes to searches and seizures by police or other law enforcement authorities. Probable cause is necessary in searching and seizing property from an individual. The measure of probable cause is whether a reasonable person would draw the conclusion that a person might be about to commit or might have committed a criminal act or that there is evidence of such an act.

It is not always necessary for police to obtain a search warrant. For example, if police have a good reason to believe that they are in an emergency situation in which people may be hurt or evidence of a crime might be destroyed, they may only need probable cause to proceed. They also do not need a search warrant to seize contraband in plain sight.

Police also do not necessarily need probable cause to detain an individual or do a vehicle search. If in the course of a traffic stop they believe they have reason to take the individual into custody, they may do so if they have probable cause.

Those who are facing charges for alcohol or drug offenses may be able to use the principle of probable cause in their defense. For example, an officer may not need probable cause to pull a person over for a traffic stop. However, the officer cannot search the person's vehicle without consent or take him or her into custody without probable cause. An individual might allege that the officer searched the vehicle illegally, or the person might consent to a search in which the officer does not find drugs but claims to find drug paraphernalia or other suspicious material. This might create a dispute as to whether this is probable cause to take someone into custody.

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