To understand a false arrest, probable cause must be understood first. Probable cause is the minimal standard by which all criminal arrests must be made. Since 1948, probable cause has been defined by the United States Supreme Court as:
“more than bare suspicion: probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers’ knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed.” Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-76 (1948).
As most civil rights lawyers will tell you, probable cause is a very low standard. A common scenario is where a person calls 911 making allegations against someone, the police arrive, and arrest the alleged person even if they are innocent. In that scenario, probable cause, and the arrest itself, would likely be upheld. Why? Because the police have the right to rely on information of reasonable trustworthiness that a crime has been committed. The police officer has no way of knowing whether the 911 caller is a pathological liar, nor does the law expect him to. But an arrest does not equal guilt.
People often mistakenly believe the “Can they arrest me?” and “Can they convict me?” standards are the same. The standard to convict a person is much, much higher than whether a person can be arrested. In plain English, the fact that a person beats their criminal case doesn’t automatically mean their civil rights have been violated.
A false arrest occurs in theabsence of probable cause, not in the absence of guilt. But a conviction of the criminal offense, or plea to a lesser offense, cuts off any civil rights false arrest claim. This makes sense – you can’t claim you were falsely arrested while being found guilty. False arrest cases are intensely fact specific. The courts have provided a considerable amount of deference to police action when considering false arrest cases. That is why it is so important for an experienced attorney to consider as many facts as possible.
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