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Probable Cause: Searches and Arrests

When you are arrested, the officer must have had a proper suspicion to conduct the arrest. This is what is commonly known in the courts as "probable cause." Probable cause is the idea that there is more evidence for an action than against, and it is the basis for most police actions such as arrests, searches and entry. Probable cause is a broad term that is meant to encompass the basic reasoning behind moving forward with police action. The officer determines what he perceives as the cause to act, and legality of such actions are discussed in court, rather than during the action itself. The notion of probable cause affects a broad number of subjects, ranging from searches, to making an arrest during a traffic stop.


Generally, if there is already a warrant out for your arrest, an officer already has probable cause to make an arrest based upon what has been defined the warrant. Warrants are usually issued by courts for failure to appear at an arraignment hearing. But what about cases where there is no warrant, and the officer makes an arrest of his own accord?

The rules for conduct for an officer making an arrest without a warrant are defined in RCW 10.31.100. The statute reads as follows:

"A police officer having probable cause to believe that a person has committed or is committing a felony shall have the authority to arrest the person without a warrant. A police officer may arrest a person without a warrant for committing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor only when the offense is committed in the presence of an officer"

The officer will have reason to arrest you if there is sufficient probable cause to believe you have or are currently committing a felony level crime. Also, for most misdemeanor level crimes, the officer must be present in order to make the arrest. There are a number of exceptions to this, however, where the officer may make an arrest if he has sufficient probable cause to believe that:

  • That a person is committing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor that involves physical harm/threats of harm to any person or property
  • That a person is committing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor that involves unlawful taking of property  
  • That a person is committing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor that involves the use or possession of cannabis/marijuana
  • That a person is committing a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor that involves acquisition, possession or consumption of alcohol by someone under the age of 21
  • That a person at a traffic stop has struck a vehicle or property, caused injury or death to a person, has been driving recklessly, under the influence, or with their license suspended, or has been racing
  • That a person has committed or is committing an act of indecent exposure
  • That a person has disturbed or interfered with the proceedings of a health care facility within 24 hours of incident

Probable cause is often not meant to be discussed at the time of arrest, and doing so may land you with other charges such as resisting arrest or obstructing a law enforcement officer. When your time comes in court, you may want to try to debate the nature of the arrest when working to get the charges dismissed with your attorney.


When the police believe you have committed a crime, or have a connection with a crime, they will want to conduct a search to seek evidence against you. In most cases, before the police may enter your premises or vehicle, they must obtain a search warrant from the courts. Typically an officer may not conduct a search of your home or vehicle without a search warrant, unless there is some sort of probable cause to do so. If your home or vehicle is searched by officers without a warrant, the legality of this will be discussed in court. You may need to wait until the pretrial period to have this evidence removed. verbally or physically resisting a search can cause you to be arrested and charged with obstructing a law enforcement officer. It is best to wait until you have legal aid to help with motions to suppress illegally obtained evidence.

If you are being stopped on the street and the officer wants to check for weapons or controlled substances, he does not normally need a warrant for less-intrusive methods of search such as a pat-down, metal detector, or a clothing search. However, if he is going to conduct a strip search or body cavity search he will need a warrant to do so; and also, all possible means of less-intrusive searches for evidence, weapon, or contraband must have been exhausted already. The only exception for this is, of course, reasonable suspicion or probable cause to conduct further search. The bounds of this are set by RCW 10.79.140. Probable cause for further search may include things like:

  • Violently resisting searches
  • Any prior criminal history you may have

Again, it is typically best to comply with the officers and discuss suppression later on. The police have a number of ways to punish people that do not immediately comply with their demands, reasonable or otherwise. Because of this it is best to avoid confrontation, and immediately seek a criminal defense attorney to assist you with working out the legality of any searches in court.

Probable cause is a broad term that officers use to describe any sneaking suspicion they may have that you have committed a crime. Oftentimes, if an officer wishes to make an arrest or conduct a search, there is little you can do at the moment. However, in the courtroom, with an experienced and diligent attorney at your side, you can work to suppress illegal evidence or dismiss arrests that have no basis. If you or a loved on is currently facing criminal charges, contact Steve Karimi today.

Contact Us

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 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

Seattle Defense Lawyer

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.