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What is probable cause to arrest in Georgia?


This week, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an opinion in Hughes v. State changed what a lot of us thought we knew about the meaning of probable cause in warrantless arrest cases.

As the United States Supreme Court has explained, “probable cause” means:

[F]acts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge that are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.

Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 99 S.Ct. 2627, 61 L.Ed.2d 343 (1979) (citations omitted). See also Devega v. State, 286 Ga. 448, 451(4)(b), 689 S.E.2d 293 (2010) (“Probable cause exists if the arresting officer has knowledge and reasonably trustworthy information about facts and circumstances sufficient for a prudent person to believe the accused has committed an offense.” (Citation and punctuation omitted)). So, when a court considers whether an officer had probable cause to arrest a suspect, the court must focus on the facts and circumstances then known to the officer, and it must inquire whether those facts and circumstances couldlead a prudent person—that is, a reasonable officer—to conclude that the suspect probably has committed an offense. The facts and circumstances known to the officer must be examined altogether, for it is the totality of those facts and circumstances that matters, Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371, 124 S.Ct. 795, 157 L.Ed.2d 769 (2003), not any one fact or circumstance standing alone. See United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 274, 122 S.Ct. 744, 151 L.Ed.2d 740 (2002) (rejecting a “pide-and-conquer analysis” that gives no weight to any observation by an officer that was “by itself readily susceptible to an innocent explanation”).8Because the standard for probable cause depends on what a reasonable officer could have concluded from those facts and circumstances, the standard of probable cause is an objective one, and the subjective thinking of the actual officers in a particular case is not important.9See Rodriguez v. State, 295 Ga. 362, 371(2)(b), n. 13, 761 S.E.2d 19 (2014) (“As the United States Supreme Court has explained, subjective intentions play no role in ordinary probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis, and the constitutional reasonableness of [searches and seizures] do not depend on the actual motivations of the inpidual officers involved.” (Citation and punctuation omitted)). See also Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813(II)(A), 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). And where the totality of the facts and circumstances known to an officer would permit reasonable officers to draw differing conclusions about whether the suspect probably has committed a crime, probable cause exists, and it is for the officer—not judges, trial or appellate—to decide which of the several reasonable conclusions to draw. See Cox v. Hainey, 391 F.3d 25, 32–33(II)(C) (1st Cir.2004) (“[T]he availability of alternative inferences does not prevent a finding of probable cause so long as the inference upon which the officer relies is reasonable…. Consequently, when conflicting inferences are available to resolve the issue of probable cause and both of them are plausible, it does not matter which inference is correct.” (Citations and punctuation omitted)).

Hughes v. State, No. S14G0622, 2015 WL 1135824, at *3 (Ga. Mar. 16, 2015).

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Ben Sessions, Attorney at Sessions Law Group
Ben Sessions

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