What is a lawful arrest?

An arrest may be made by police officers or any other authorized law enforcement agent in the ordinary course of carrying out their duties as they have been empowered to do so. Such an arrest will be deemed to be a lawful arrest. One of the essential elements in a lawful arrest is the existence of probable cause.

Probable cause refers to the requirement in criminal law giving the police or any other authorized body the power to arrest an individual that is suspected to have committed a crime, is committing a crime, or would likely commit a crime.


For instance;

Ø  If someone was struck with a dangerous object, and you were suspected to have carried out that act because you were found close to the victim, with blood stains on your hands and clothes, there’s probable cause to arrest you.

Ø  If you were found in the act of stealing a motorcycle from where it is parked, then there’s a probable cause to arrest you.

Ø  If also in a situation where you are planning to burgle someone’s house in the night and you were found when making such plans, even though the act has not been carried out yet, there’s a probable cause to arrest you.


The existence of a probable cause before securing an arrest rests upon the circumstances and fact within the officer’s knowledge that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect in question has committed, is committing, or would likely commit a crime. Probable cause is largely based on true facts available rather than just an officer’s personal suspicion or malice.

The facts may be derived from:

  • the witnesses in the scene where the crime took place,
  • the victims of the crime,
  • the informants available.

Circumstantial evidence which points at no other direction than that a crime has been committed and has most likely been committed by the suspect in question could also be useful in determining probable cause. For instance, a broken window with a bullet hole on the wall, with the suspect has a sharp cut on his hand and was found with a gun, at the crime scene.

Basically, for the police to secure a lawful arrest, he must have a probable cause which is the reason for the arrest of the suspected individual.


Who determines a probable cause?

The act of determining probable cause does not revolve round the arresting officer, rather, it is determined by a judge or a magistrate after considering the facts presented before him by the officer to secure the arrest and having interpreted the relevant provisions regulating such arrest.

This means that, while it is possible that a police officer may in good faith have reasonably believed that he had probable cause to arrest the suspect, a judge may decide otherwise.

This may occur after considering the facts presented before a judge who believes they are not sufficient enough to amount to a reasonable cause to arrest such individual. Where this happens, the suspect will be released due to lack of probable cause.

This however does not make the arresting officer liable for wrongful arrest, in instances where the arrest has already been carried out as long as he in good faith had reasonably believed that he had a probable cause to arrest such individual.


Observation of crime

Another means by which probable cause may be established, is the observation of a crime by the arresting officer.Observation of crime implies that the arresting officer actually saw the suspect committing the crime in question.

For example, a police officer working in the bank and was present during a robbery incident. If the officer goes ahead to arrest such robber, it will be held to be lawful.

Or where the officer who may not be on duty had seen the individual striking the victim with a knife or a dangerous object. This validates the arrest, occasioned by probable cause, even though there was no warrant of arrest.

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