Probable Cause & Freddie Gray: Criminal Procedure

Criminal Procedure Probable Cause

Probable cause is a concept which many people are aware but lack a critical understanding.

On April 12, 2015 Baltimore bike police passed a gentlemen name Freddy Gray and upon making eye contact, Gray began fleeing (Fantz & Botelho, 2015). The police pursued Gray and after stopping him they arrested him for possessing an illegal knife. This story is disputed by witnesses who videotaped the arrest. Witnesses claim that Gray was being violently apprehended with his legs folded to his back and with an officer’s knee on his neck in the prone position (Fantz & Botelho, 2015). During transportation Gray would receive serious spinal injuries which ultimately led to his death several days later. This situation launched a tremendous controversy accompanied by riots and millions of dollars in property damage (Fantz & Botelho, 2015). The Freddy Gray case highlights a serious problem beyond racial bias in the understanding and application of probable cause.

Police arrested Gray after pursuing him stating that he was in possession of an illegal knife. The officer who made the arrest noticed the knife clipped to Gray’s pocket (Fantz & Botelho, 2015). Arresting police claimed that the knife in Gray’s possession was a switchblade and this was illegal under Maryland Law. However, the knife was not a switchblade but instead a spring-assisted blade which is legal under Maryland law (Fantz & Botelho, 2015). As a result of this error, there was no probable cause and therefore the arrest was illegal (Fantz & Botelho, 2015).

The pursuit of Gray was based on his behavior prior to finding the knife, Gray had not committed a crime. His suspicious behavior might have mandated a stop-and frisk. This form of search Is a quick or lite search of a suspect which normally involves patting down the persons outer clothing. Police must have reasonable suspicion that the person is about to commit a crime or is carrying a weapon (Cornell Law, 2014). However, Gray was arrested without cause as he was placed in handcuffs and searched prior to police having seen the knife. This is not probable cause.

Probable cause is a concept which many people are aware but lack a critical understanding. Probable cause is “a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true” (Handler, 1994). In most instances probable cause is simple to determine. For example, if a person is screaming from inside a house appears to be in trouble, than a search is justified based on probable cause. Under a different circumstance, police need to obtain a search warrant prior to entering residence or arresting and searching a person.

Probable cause is what is known as an exception to the warrant rule. This is an abused and misunderstood area of law. There are many exceptions to the warrant rule such as in the case of automobiles.

The “automobile exception” is an exception to the general requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Under the exception, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant when the evidence or contraband may possibly be removed from the scene due to the mobility of a vehicle and it is not practical to secure a warrant without jeopardizing the potential evidence (Cornell Law, 2014).

Searches such as this also fall under what is known as plain view rule (Cornell Law, 2014). If a police officer can see contraband in the car or in a person’s possession, they may be detained and searched. In situations such as the arrest of Freddie Gray, police detained and searched Gray without probable cause because he was behaving suspiciously. If a police officer stops someone because they appear to be acting suspicious such as such as in the case of Gray because he was running, and finds contraband this is a problematic situation. The reason this situation is a problem is that the police officer has detained and searched the person on a suspicion. Because the police officer finds a knife this is now used to claim probable cause but in reality there is no probable cause. In order for a probable cause arrest to be valid the probable cause must exist prior to arrest. In the case of Freddy Gray, there was no probable cause for detainment and search.

The law would appear to be clear with regard to the fourth amendment and its provisions for legal search and seizure. According to the Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against 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 (Cornell Law, 2014).

The Fourth Amendment limits the power of police to arbitrarily arrest, search persons and their property. The Fourth Amendment provides the basis for all search and seizure laws. The Fourth Amendment was designed to protect a citizen’s right to privacy and false arrest. However, there are many exceptions which have been made to search and seizure laws which override the Fourth Amendment. The most ambiguous of these exceptions has been the concept of probable cause. The case of Freddie Gray exemplifies this problem as the police gathered evidence illegally then claimed probable cause. Ultimately, Gray’s death may have been avoided if the police had followed proper procedure during their encounter with Gray.

One of the major issues with exceptions to search and seizure laws is that there are so many that it becomes confusing. For instance, under administrative law and regulatory law there are even more exceptions to search and seizure. Even more confusing is the fact that laws themselves can confuse situations. For example, despite the fact that Gray was searched without probable cause, the police claim that he was carrying an illegal weapon was also incorrect. There is a discrepancy between Baltimore City Law and Maryland State Law concerning illegal knives. Because of this discrepancy, Grey was detained for an illegal weapon which was not illegal further showing the lack of probable cause and how this concept can become ambiguous.


Cornell Law. (2014). Cornell Law. Retrieved from Cornell Law:

Fantz, A., & Botelho, G. (2015, April 29). What we know, don’t know about Freddie Gray’s death. Retrieved from CNN:

Handler, J. G. (1994). Ballentine’s Law Dictionary (Legal Assistant ed.). Albany: Delmar.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 01, 2021. Probable Cause & Freddie Gray: Criminal Procedure Retrieved from

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