Inferring Probable Cause: Obtaining a Search Warrant for a Suspect's Home without Direct Information That Evidence Is Inside. (Legal Digest)

By Hendrie, Edward | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Inferring Probable Cause: Obtaining a Search Warrant for a Suspect's Home without Direct Information That Evidence Is Inside. (Legal Digest)


Hendrie, Edward, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


This article addresses the issue of when sufficient evidence exists to establish probable cause to search the residence of a person who has been arrested for, or is involved in, criminal activity.

To search a residence for evidence of a crime, an officer must have probable cause to believe that the evidence is inside the home.

What is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is a somewhat nebulous standard, yet officers are called on to apply that standard with some exactness each day. Many have tried to apply "a one size fits all" standard of probable cause to every situation, because they believe that probable cause is one consistent standard of proof that occupies a fixed point. In fact, probable cause offers a range of proofs that occupies a zone. (1) This zone allows for a flexible standard for probable cause, which depends on the circumstances. (2) Generally, the more serious the crime, the more latitude the police are allowed when deciding whether probable cause exists. (3)

No exposition of probable cause would he complete without a discussion of Illinois v. Gates. (4) In Gates, the Bloomingdale Police Department received an anonymous handwritten letter through the mail on May 3, 1978. The letter alleged that Sue and Lance Gates were involved in drug trafficking. The letter gave a general description of the condominium complex where the Gateses lived and stated that the Gateses presently had over $100,000 worth of drugs in their basement. The anonymous tipster stated that Sue Gates ordinarily drove her car to Florida, where she would leave it to be loaded with drugs. Lance would fly down later and drive the car back to Illinois, and Sue would fly back to Illinois. The letter indicated that they planned to make a trip to pick up over $100,000 worth of drugs on May 3.

A police detective assigned to the case determined that Lance Gates made a reservation on a flight to West Palm Beach, Florida, scheduled to depart from Chicago on May 5 at 4:15 p.m. The detective made arrangements with agents from DEA for surveillance of the May 5 flight. The DEA agents observed Lance Gates boarding the flight, and other agents in Florida observed Gates arriving in West Palm Beach. The Florida agents observed Gates take a taxi to a nearby motel and go to a room registered to Susan Gates. Early the next morning, the agents observed Gates and an unidentified woman, apparently Susan Gates, leave the motel in an automobile bearing Illinois license plates registered to another vehicle owned by Gates. Gates drove northbound on an interstate highway frequently used to travel to the Chicago area.

Based on what the detective learned from the anonymous tip and the DEA surveillance, he obtained a search warrant for the Gateses' residence and automobile. Thirty-six hours after Lance Gates flew out of Chicago, Lance and his wife returned to their home in the suburban Chicago area. When the Gateses arrived at their home, the police were waiting for them. The police executed the search warrant and found 350 pounds of marijuana in the car and more marijuana, weapons, and other contraband in the home.

The trial court ordered that the evidence be suppressed because the affidavit failed to establish probable cause that the car and home contained the contraband in question. The decision of the trial court was affirmed by both the state appellate court and the Illinois Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court applied the Aguilar-Spinelli two-prong test, (5) and stated that the affidavit did not establish probable cause because there was no indication of the informant's basis of knowledge, and there was no way for the officer to verify the credibility of the anonymous tipster. The court stated that while the officer was able to corroborate some of the details of the tipster's facts, they were only innocent details and, therefore, insufficient corroboration. The court further stated that the letter gave no indication of the basis of the writer's knowledge of the drug activities of the Gateses.

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Inferring Probable Cause: Obtaining a Search Warrant for a Suspect's Home without Direct Information That Evidence Is Inside. (Legal Digest)
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