The Probable Cause Fairy: AKA An Officer’s “Training & Experience”

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.rosenthalwadas.com

(972) 369-0577

It was very early on in my experience with criminal law when I first learned the power of an officer’s “training and experience.”

Much of our legal system is built to prevent profiling of any kind.  Some of those safeguards include both statutes and case law which prevent officers from arresting or even just hassling people based on “hunches.”  Courts have long recognized where there is a hunch, there is a good chance there is profiling.

Courts insist probable cause must be based on what is called articulable fact and then making reasonable deductions from those facts which make it probable a crime is in progress or just occurred.

An example of articulable fact would be “Defendant swerved into the next lane of traffic without signaling.”  The statement is concrete and establishes an objective fact, i.e., the car moved from one lane to the next.  A reasonable deduction would be there is something wrong with the driver.  An officer can and should investigate more.

But the topic is still pretty mushy.

Here’s an example of something which probably isn’t articulable fact: “Defendant took several steps away from his car after I asked him to exit the vehicle.”  This doesn’t really tell us anything, does it?  Can we deduce this person has done something wrong or is trying to get away with something?  It’s hard, huh?

How Police and Prosecutors Convert Hunches into Articulable Facts

They do it through using the magical phrase referring to an officer’s “training and experience.”

So lets change the above example… “Defendant took several steps away from his car after he exited the vehicle.  In my training and experience, people in possession of drugs will often separate themselves from the contraband.”

Really?  Which class was that in the police academy?  How many times, officer, has a defendant taken several steps away from a car because they had drugs… and would you mind trying to remember those cases…. because this sounds like you just made it up?

See how it works?  By inserting “training and experience” into the sentence, SHAZAM — what was once just a hunch is now articulable fact.

In defense of police and prosecutors — I don’t think they really see what they are doing is trying to manipulate the standards.  They may honestly believe police get a ‘hound dog’ sense after being on the streets for their careers…. and maybe they do.  But the bottom line is blurs the line between “articulable fact” and a hunch.  Unfortunately, courts often go along with the fiction.

The Defense Lawyer’s Struggle

Our constant struggle is trying to root out exaggeration and, for lack of a better word, fudge from prosecutors and police which helps them attain probable cause or convince a jury to convict.

Any time I hear that phrase in the courtroom it sets off my spidey sense and it is time to fasten the seat-belts.  But that is just my training and experience!

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law in Texas.  Nothing in this article should be considered as legal advice.  For legal advice about any situation contact an attorney directly.

 

 

 

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