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What Is Probable Cause in SC?


While laws may vary between states, there are some rights guaranteed to every U.S. citizen by the Federal Constitution. One, established by the Fourth Amendment, is the protection against unlawful searches and seizures unless law enforcement officials have something called “probable cause,” with a few limited exceptions.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • What probable cause means in the practical context of the law in SC
  • The minimum requirements to establish probable cause
  • What happens when these Fourth Amendment rights are violated in South Carolina law

If you’ve ever been stopped and had your vehicle or other property searched by law enforcement, you may be able to attest to the fact that everything happens quicker than you realize. This is why it’s important to know your rights and retain representation from an experienced lawyers in South Carolina. Without further ado, what is probable cause?

All About Probable Cause in South Carolina

Here’s everything you need to know about how the concept of probable cause is handled by South Carolina state law:

What IS Probable Cause?

Probable cause is the belief, supported by evidence, that a crime is being committed or will be committed in a given situation.

This is the standard that law enforcement has to uphold when making the decision to make an arrest or search someone’s personal property. This may include items on their person, in their vehicle, or on any privately owned land.

Where Does It Come From?

The probable cause standard comes from the U.S. Constitution, as stated in the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be searched.”

Basically, in order to officially order a search, whether it results in your property being seized or not, police have to have probable cause for it to be legal. “Officially order” are the keywords here, meaning a search warrant. This is separate from the limited exceptions when law enforcement does not need a search warrant to search.

This determination is based on the “reasonable person” standard. Essentially, the circumstances should be seen from the point of view of a fictional, unbiased observer. Would a rational person see the probable cause in a given situation? If not, then no search or seizures would be considered legal.

Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion

With probable cause based on the “reasonable person” standard, it’s commonly confused with “reasonable suspicion”. Reasonable suspicion is an entirely different standard that is used in “stop and frisk” situations. It simply means that law enforcement finds a reason to believe that a crime is occurring, and gives the officer the ability to stop and question people and search for weapons. 

Probable Cause to Arrest

In order to make an arrest, law enforcement officials must have probable cause, documented in the form of an arrest warrant. Here’s how police move forward with an arrest when the issue of probable cause is in question:

The arresting officers will document all of the evidence from the circumstances, compiling it into a sworn affidavit, or official legal document. This evidence includes facts and observations, rather than the officers’ independent conclusions or suspicions.

The affidavit is presented to a magistrate from the court, who makes the final decision on whether or not there is probable cause to make an arrest. If they find that there is, they issue an arrest warrant.

Probable Cause to Search

Probable cause for a search of a suspect’s property follows the same general process as an arrest.

Officers have to have significant reason to believe that the area to be searched will yield an object or object(s) that have been used in a crime. The process looks very similar: officers compile evidence that supports their reason for this belief into an affidavit and present it to a third-party magistrate, who either accepts the reasoning and grants a search warrant or denies it based on the insufficient cause.

Probable Cause to Seize Property

This type of probable cause exists when an officer believes that an item uncovered as a part of a criminal investigation was used in a crime, is stolen, or is otherwise considered to be contraband.

A warrant for seizure is not as important in most states, which is why there are regular legal battles over the issue of “civil forfeiture” in jurisdictions across the United States, including in the Supreme Court.

Civil forfeiture is a law that exists in some states that allows law enforcement to keep cash and other assets seized in an investigation, even when it doesn’t result in criminal charges.

Conclusion: Probable Cause in SC

Because the legal concepts of probable cause, reasonable suspicion, civil forfeiture, and other related terms are often subjective in a specific place, it’s in your best interest to retain experienced legal representation, even when the stakes are relatively low.

The Kent Collins Law Firm has helped thousands of people protect their interests while navigating the South Carolina justice system. Call today for a case review.

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