Probable Cause Pluralism

116 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2019 Last revised: 1 Apr 2020

Date Written: February 27, 2019


The constitutionality of a search or seizure typically depends upon the connection between the target of that search or seizure and some allegation of illegal behavior—a connection assessed by asking whether the search or seizure is supported by probable cause. But as central as probable cause is to the Fourth Amendment’s administration, no one seems to know what it means or how it operates. Indeed, the Supreme Court insists it is “not possible” to define the term, holding instead that the probable-cause inquiry entails no more than the application of “common sense” to “the totality of the circumstances.” Viewed charitably, this refusal to elaborate on the meaning of probable cause stems from an understandable desire for doctrinal flexibility in the face of weighty and competing law-enforcement demands. But the Court’s doctrinal approach is also routinely criticized as an “I know it when I see it” jurisprudence that is ill equipped to safeguard civil liberties in the numerous interactions between civilians and law-enforcement actors.

This tension between doctrinal flexibility and structure is the animating dilemma of probable cause jurisprudence—a dilemma that this Article attempts to navigate and, ultimately, to resolve. To do so, it urges a rejection of an often invoked—if not always followed—tenet of Supreme Court doctrine: probable cause unitarianism. That dominant idea, expressly endorsed in many of the Court’s leading precedents, holds that whatever probable cause means, it ought to entail the same basic analytic method and be judged by the same substantive standard, from one case to another. But on close inspection, the Supreme Court’s existing jurisprudence contains seeds of an alternative— and superior—conception of probable cause, which this Article terms probable cause pluralism. On this view, probable cause is an open-textured and capacious idea that can comfortably encompass distinct analytic frameworks and substantive standards, each of which can be tailored to the unique epistemological and normative challenges posed by different types of Fourth Amendment events. Probable-cause analysis can be statistically driven or intuitively assessed; it can demand compelling evidence of illegal behavior or only an occasionally satisfied profile; it can presume the credibility of some types of witnesses while treating others with deserved skepticism or disbelief. It can, in short, come to mean something—if it gives up on meaning any one thing in all cases.

In its current form, probable cause’s pluralism is nascent, implicit, and undertheorized—and is thus at best a stunted and haphazard collection of disparate ideas. This Article’s central contribution is to bring those ideas together, refining and synthesizing them into a comprehensive account of what a pluralist theory of probable cause could and should look like. Specifically, by organizing probable cause around three central analytic axes—which in turn ask how to assess evidentiary claims, how to assess proponents of such claims, and how to determine the certainty thresholds for those two assessments—this Article constructs a universally applicable framework for determining the constitutionality of any given search or seizure. With that framework in hand, scholars and jurists will be better equipped to reason through the many and varied cases to come and better able to assess the many cases that have come before.

Keywords: Fourth Amendment, Probable Cause, Criminal Procedure

Suggested Citation

Crespo, Andrew Manuel, Probable Cause Pluralism (February 27, 2019). 129 Yale L.J. 1276 (2020), Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 19-12, Available at SSRN: or

Andrew Manuel Crespo (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1525 Massachusetts
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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