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Search and Seizure

The Exclusionary Rule And The Fruit Of The Poisonous Tree Doctrine

A criminal defendant's claim of unreasonable search and seizure is usually heard in a suppression hearing before the presiding trial judge. This hearing is conducted before trial to determine what evidence will be suppressed, or excluded, from trial. When a judge deems a search unreasonable, he or she frequently applies the EXCLUSIONARY RULE.

For the entire nineteenth century, a Fourth Amendment violation had little consequence. Evidence seized by law enforcement from a warrantless or otherwise unreasonable search was admissible at trial if the judge found it reliable. This made the Fourth Amendment essentially meaningless to criminal defendants. But in 1914, the U.S. Supreme Court devised a way to enforce the Fourth Amendment. In Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 34 S. Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652 (1914), a federal agent conducted a warrantless search for evidence of gambling at the home of Fremont Weeks. The evidence seized in the search was used at trial, and Weeks was convicted. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment barred the use of evidence secured through a warrantless search and seizure. Weeks's conviction was reversed and thus was born the exclusionary rule.

The exclusionary rule is a judicially created remedy used to deter POLICE MISCONDUCT in obtaining evidence. Under the exclusionary rule, a judge may exclude incriminating evidence from a criminal trial if there was police misconduct in obtaining the evidence. Without the evidence, the prosecutor may lose the case or drop the charges for lack of proof. This rule provides some substantive protection against illegal search and seizure.

The exclusionary rule was constitutionally required only in federal court until MAPP V. OHIO, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961). In Mapp, the Court held that the exclusionary rule applied to state criminal proceedings through the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. Before the Mapp ruling, not all states excluded evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. After Mapp, a defendant's claim of unreasonable search and seizure became commonplace in criminal prosecutions.

The application of the exclusionary rule has been significantly limited by a GOOD FAITH exception created by the Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S. Ct. 3405, 82 L. Ed. 2d 677 (1984). Under the good faith exception, evidence obtained in violation of a person's Fourth Amendment rights will not be excluded from trial if the law enforcement officer, though mistaken, acts reasonably. For example, if an officer reasonably conducts a search relying on information that is later proved to be false, any evidence seized in the search will not be excluded if the officer acted in good faith, with a reasonable reliance on the information. The Supreme Court has carved out this exception to the exclusionary rule because, according to a majority of the court, the rule was designed to deter police misconduct, and excluding evidence when the police did not misbehave would not deter police misconduct.

A companion to the exclusionary rule is the FRUIT OF THE POISONOUS TREE doctrine, established by the Supreme Court in Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 60 S. Ct. 266, 84 L. Ed. 307 (1939). Under this doctrine, a court may exclude from trial any evidence derived from the results of an illegal search. For example, assume that an illegal search has garnered evidence of illegal explosives. This evidence is then used to obtain a warrant to search the suspect's home. The exclusionary rule excludes the evidence initially used to obtain the search warrant, and the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine excludes any evidence obtained in a search of the home.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateSearch and Seizure - Overview, State Action, Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy, Probable Cause And Reasonable Suspicion, Arrest And Miranda