Probable Cause Defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio

The landmark 1968 United States Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio remains one of the most commonly cited cases in the area of Fourth Amendment search and seizure law.  The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.1 The Terry court examined what type of conduct is considered reasonable within this context.

This case holds that it is reasonable for an officer to stop an individual absent probable cause to arrest, as long as he/she can point to "specific articulable facts" that justify the intrusion.  An officer's good faith and/or inarticulate hunches simply aren't enough.2

Reasonable belief vs. reasonable suspicion

In order to reach its decision, the Terry court basically distinguished between two standards that are necessarily involved with any stop, detention, and/or arrest:  reasonable belief and reasonable suspicion.

In essence, a reasonable belief is probable cause.  Probable cause means that a reasonable and cautious officer would believe that criminal activity is or was taking place.  This is the level of proof that is required to arrest and even to conduct a prolonged investigation.

A reasonable suspicion is a lesser standard.  Only a reasonable suspicion is necessary in order to stop an individual who an officer suspects may be involved in criminal activity.

To put this in practical terms, this means that an officer only needs a reasonable suspicion that a driver is violating the law in order to stop his/her car.  It isn't necessary that the officer initially suspects that the driver is, for example, guilty of DUI, but only that the driver has committed a traffic violation or infraction.

If, upon making contact with the driver, the officer reasonably suspects that he/she may be DUI, the officer can take a few moments to decide whether to pursue a DUI investigation.  If the officer wishes to detain the suspect more for more than a temporary stop, the officer must have a reasonable belief that the individual is actually driving under the influence.

This means that probable cause is required in order for an officer to conduct a California DUI investigation and a subsequent DUI arrest.  If your California DUI defense attorney doesn't believe that there was probable cause to arrest you...or a reasonable suspicion to pull you over in the first place...he or she will ask the court to exclude any evidence from trial that was obtained in violation of the illegal procedure(s).  This type of "motion to suppress evidence" is one of the most common ways to fight a California DUI.3

Terry v. Ohio applies to all criminal stops, detentions, and investigations, not just California DUIs

It must be noted that Terry v. Ohio isn't specific to California DUI law.  It applies to all states and to all criminal investigations.  In fact, the actual case specifically deals with whether an officer can stop and detain an individual to conduct a weapon search without probable cause to arrest.

And the answer is yes, so long as the officer can articulate specific facts that warrant such an intrusion.  As well-known San Jose CA criminal defense attorney Jim Hammer explains4, "the Terry case applies to criminal law, period.  This holding applies to all criminal stops, detentions, and arrests, which is why an individual secure in his home or even driving a car is afforded the same protection as an individual walking down the street."

If you have additional questions or you would like to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California DUI defense attorneys, please don't hesitate to contact us.  We have local DUI law offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Orange County, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

You may also find helpful information in our related articles on Probable Cause and California DUI Investigations and Arrests, California DUI Laws, and Fighting a California DUI.

Legal References:

1United States Constitution, amendment IV.  ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against the unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.")

2Terry v. Ohio, (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 21.  ("And in justifying the particular intrusion the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.")

3A motion to suppress evidence is made via at Penal Code 1538.5 hearing.  California Penal Code 1538.5 -- Motion to return property or suppress evidence.  ("(a)(1) A defendant may move for the return of property or to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as a result of a search or seizure on either of the following grounds: (A) The search or seizure without a warrant was unreasonable...")

4San Jose criminal defense attorney Jim Hammer uses his former inside knowledge as a San Francisco District Attorney to defend clients accused of DUI, drug-related crimes, theft, and more serious charges.  Mr. Hammer represents clients throughout the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Marin County and San Jose.  If you would like a confidential consultation with Jim Hammer, we invite you to contact us.

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