While it may seem surprising, in most cases the police do not need a warrant arrest you. It all comes down to probable cause — if the police have probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime, they can arrest you without going to a judge for a warrant first. In getting a warrant, law enforcement officers have to convince a judge that there is probable cause to make an arrest; if an arrest was made without a warrant, the police must later convince a judge that there was sufficient probable cause at the time the arrest was made.
So what constitutes probable cause? In general, probable cause exists when law enforcement have more than a “bare suspicion” that a crime has been committed, and that the person they want to arrest has committed the crime. The police don’t actually have to witness the crime; they just have to honestly believe it is more likely than not that the suspect was involved. Once of the most common bases for a warrantless arrest is where a witness to a crime gives a description of a perpetrator and the police see someone fitting that description nearby. In most cases, that is sufficient probable cause to justify an arrest for a felony offense. The same does not hold true for misdemeanors, however — an officer cannot make a warrantless arrest of someone for a minor crime (such as shoplifting) without having personally witnessed the crime.
Generally, police need an arrest warrant if they are planning to arrest a person in his or her home. This is not a blanket rule, however, and police can make a warrantless arrest in a suspect’s home if “exigent circumstances” exist. Exigent circumstances can include the following situations: when the police have chased a fleeing suspect into his home; when the police believe that someone might be in danger inside the house; or if a person (not necessarily the suspect) answers the door and lets the police come inside. In any of those cases, an officer may later justify the warrantless arrest even if made inside a suspect’s home.
If a judge later rules that there was insufficient probable cause for the police to arrest you, there remains little you can do. An experienced attorney may argue that any evidence gathered during the course of an unlawful arrest should be inadmissible during trial, but consequences of an unlawful arrest are evidentiary in nature.
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