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The Reasonableness of Probable Cause

Craig S. Lerner

George Mason University School of Law

George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 05-18
Texas Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 4, pp. 951-1029, March 2003

Probable cause is generally cast in judicial opinions and the scholarly literature as a fixed probability of criminal activity. In the weeks before the September 11 attacks, FBI headquarters, applying such an unbending standard, rejected a warrant application to search Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop computer. This article, which begins with an analysis of the Moussaoui episode, argues that the probable cause standard should be calibrated to the gravity of the investigated offense and the intrusiveness of a proposed search. Tracing the evolution of probable cause from the common law through its American development, the article argues that the Supreme Court's current insistence on a "single standard" lacks historical support. Probable cause should be recast within a reasonableness framework, embracing the common sense view that not all searches equally trench on privacy concerns and not all crimes equally threaten the social order.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 80

Keywords: Probable cause, Fourth Amendment, Reasonableness, Terrorism

JEL Classification: K14, K42

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Date posted: August 24, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Lerner, Craig S., The Reasonableness of Probable Cause. George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 05-18; Texas Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 4, pp. 951-1029, March 2003. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=784564

Contact Information

Craig S. Lerner (Contact Author)
George Mason University School of Law ( email )
3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
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