Probable Cause

Definition - What does Probable Cause mean?

Probable cause is a legal term meaning that there is a reasonable belief, based on factual knowledge, that some event or action has occurred. Because probable cause is dependent on a person's specific factual knowledge of a situation, probable cause determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. In every situation, a determination of probable cause must be based on actual knowledge and not suspicion or speculation.

WorkplaceTesting explains Probable Cause

Probable cause is premised on what is known as the reasonable person standard. Thus, probable cause only exists if a reasonably prudent person in possession of the stated facts would believe that something is true. This reasonable belief standard does not require absolute certainty. A person may have some doubts about the facts but still have enough information to have probable cause to believe an action or event has taken place. As a legal standard, probable cause requires less factual proof than belief beyond a reasonable doubt but more factual proof than a reasonable suspicion. Often a judge will make the final determination as to whether probable cause exists in a particular case.

While a probable cause standard can be applied in both criminal and civil actions, most probable cause questions arise in criminal cases. For instance, a police officer must have probable cause to obtain a search warrant for someone's home or to make an arrest. A criminal defendant may challenge his or her arrest or the use of evidence obtained without probable cause. When considering the results of a pre-employment background check, an arrest that did not lead to a conviction but was supported by probable cause might be considered more serious than an arrest that was dismissed for no probable cause.

In some circumstances, an employer may need probable cause to require an employee to submit to drug or alcohol testing. An employer should be aware of both state and federal laws regarding these for cause requirements. Appropriate training should be provided to employer representatives who will be required to make probable cause determinations. Employers should also keep adequate records to support any finding of probable cause.

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