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Judge finds probable cause for Olympia murder charges, but what is probable cause?

Posted by Steve Karimi | Jun 14, 2016 | 0 Comments

A judge recently found probable cause to charge an Olympia-area man with four felony charges, including murder, even though a body has not been found.

Bail was set at $2 million for James E. Stidd, 66, in the death of Gail J. Doyle, 60, according to The Seattle Times. The victim last was seen with the suspect June. 2. Though her body has not been found, the judge determined there was enough evidence -- or probable cause -- to charge Stidd with her murder. Detectives found spattered blood and a hammer covered in blond hair in the suspect's garage.

Probable cause is a requirement of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which defines the right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Probable cause typically must be met before police make an arrest, conduct a search or receive a warrant. Courts usually find probable cause when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed or when evidence of the crime is present in the place to be searched,” according to the Cornell University Law School.

In some situations, however, law enforcement officers can conduct a warrantless search, seizure or arrest. Exigent circumstances are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment and occur “when a law enforcement officer has a probable cause and no sufficient time to secure a warrant,” such as when an officer is in “hot pursuit” of a driver suspected of committing a crime.

When judges consider if exigent circumstances were present, they consider whether a “reasonable officer at the scene would believe it is urgent to act and impractical to secure a warrant.” Courts consider whether:

  • The suspect was armed and planning to escape.
  • A reasonable police officer would believe his or her safety or the safety of others was threatened.
  • There was a serious crime involved.

Although addressed in the U.S. Constitution, what constitutes probable cause is not clear cut.

“Whether or not there is probable cause depends on the totality of the circumstances, meaning everything that the arresting officers know or reasonably believe at the time the arrest is made,” according to the Cornell site. Nevertheless, “probable cause remains a flexible concept, and what constitutes the ‘totality of the circumstances' often depends on how the court interprets the reasonableness standard.”

In an attempt to illustrate probable cause, Police Magazine compared it to other levels of proof:

  • Probable cause is less than proof "beyond a reasonable doubt," a much higher standard the prosecutor must meet to convict a defendant.
  • Probable cause is less than "clear and convincing" proof, a higher standard that must be met for certain legal rulings, such as whether jury challenges were improperly based on group bias.
  • Probable cause is less than a "preponderance of the evidence" (meaning 50 percent-plus), the plaintiff's burden of proof to win a civil case.
  • Probable cause is something more than the "reasonable suspicion" required to justify a temporary investigative detention.

As an example, if an officer on night patrol sees a car without lights on, weaving slightly within the lane. This is not probable cause for an arrest, but it is reasonable suspicion to pull over the driver to investigate. If the driver exhibits symptoms of DUI it could constitute probable cause for an arrest.

Anyone who finds themselves arrested and facing charges, regardless of the circumstances, has the right to the best defense. If you have been arrested, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.

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If you were arrested or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Seattle or surrounding areas of Washington State, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-621-8777 during regular business hours or 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.