College Honors Program

Date of Creation


Document Type


First Advisor

Daina Harvey

Second Advisor

Monica Carney


It is well documented how our country’s Criminal Justice System has a history of targeting people of color. A lot of this contention is derived from police officers’ behavior when interacting with individuals, yet officers only act upon the laws and legal policies that grant them authority, including probable cause. My thesis addresses the question, how does the fluid and ambiguous nature of probable cause leave the door open for officers to disproportionately target people of color in the United States? While focusing on vehicle, person, and property searches, I first define probable cause, building an understanding of exactly what kinds of arrests, searches, and seizures the Fourth Amendment does and does not protect citizens from. Next, I analyze a few seminal decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that shaped the boundaries of probable cause as it is applied today, closely evaluating the Supreme Court Justices’ legal arguments in each case. Finally, to discuss the impact of probable cause on today’s ordinary African American, I examine three recent and controversial encounters between police and black civilians that depict how officers can act on the ambiguity of probable cause to target people of color in general.