What Does It Take to Establish Probable Cause?
In a concurring opinion in United States v. McClain, No. 04-5887 (6th Cir., Dec. 2, 2005), Chief Judge Danny Boggs of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit seeks to explain what “probable cause” entails. Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement officials often must have probable cause to believe that the place to be searched contains evidence of a crime in order to conduct a search. In describing the standard, however, Judge Boggs defines it as a ridiculously low threshold:
Finally, a word on “probable cause.” While courts have resisted mightily putting a number on probable cause, see Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003), at bottom a review of cases indicates that there must be some, albeit inchoate, feeling as to what kind of probability constitutes probable cause. My reading is that it does not require a belief that there is more than a 50% probability of evidence being found in a particular location. See, e.g., United States v. Gourde, 382 F.3d 1003, 1015 (9th Cir. 2004) (Gould, J., concurring) (collecting cases). If that were the case, one could never get a search warrant to search all three cars of a person for whom there was overwhelming evidence of general drug dealing, and specific evidence of a drug transaction the proceeds of which were now certainly in one of three cars in his garage, and certainly not in any of the others. However, to be more than a hunch or a supposition, in my own mind, requires a legitimate belief that there is more than a 5 or 10 percent chance that a crime is being committed or that evidence is in a particular location. Using this standard, my judgment would be that there was probable cause to believe that criminal activity was afoot in the house, based on the information on which the officers could reasonably rely that there was not a legitimate reason for activity in the house.
This strikes me as far too low a precentage. Just five to ten percent? It would be nearly impossible for law enforcement officials to fail to establish probable cause, unless they were just conducting a random search. If probable cause is just slightly more than five to ten percent, then what number would Judge Boggs give for “reasonable suspicion,” the lower standard for the police to engage in a stop? One percent?
Hat Tip: How Appealing