To some readers, the following story of a police stop and subsequent drug bust last week might be eminently straightforward and unproblematic in any way.
The bottom line, according to a media account: A cop in Cumberland County stopped a vehicle. While approaching it, the motorist fled into nearby woods. He was apprehended by a team of deputies. The police report indicates that he was unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon and that "large quantities" of drugs were found inside the car.
Again, to some readers of the news account, that story might seem to tell a quite unremarkable and innocuous tale. And given the drugs allegedly discovered, the criminal charges subsequently filed against the motorist -- multiple and serious felony counts -- might spell a proper outcome in the matter.
That take might not be universally shared by all readers who peruse the story, though, especially among those who take more than a passing interest in fair play, criminal law processes and constitutional imperatives aimed at protecting individual rights and the public in a collective sense.
Here's why: There was no mention in the story at all of what legally entitled the police officer to come into close contact with the driver in the first place.
In other words, there was no reference to what might have reasonably served as probable cause enabling the officer to issue a stop command.
So, it simply has to be asked: Why was the driver stopped? Maybe there was a good reason for detaining him, but the bottom line is that, legally, there needed to be a reason. A legal stop must have been preceded by some reasonable belief that criminal conduct had occurred or was ongoing.
Probable cause is often a sticky proposition for law enforcers, and for good reason, namely, that it requires them to precede actions taken with a rationale based on something that can be articulated and resonates with the general public. You can't just stop a man because, well, you want to stop him.
That leads to a breakdown in citizen protection. It breeds pretextual police behavior. It allows for selective enforcement against certain demographics.
A probable cause showing is important in every instance, because it is a bedrock legal principle meant to protect both an individual interacting with an officer and the larger public in a general sense.
So, it must always be asked: Was there probable cause?