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Wong Sun v. United States

Fruits Of The Poisonous Tree

By a 5-4 vote, the Court reversed and remanded the appeals court decision. In addressing Toy's connection, Justice Brennan, writing for the majority, first agreed with the court of appeals finding that neither reasonable grounds nor probable cause existed to support Toy's arrest. Brennan wrote, "It is basic that an arrest with or without a warrant must stand upon firmer ground than mere suspicion." In the case of Toy, insufficient evidence existed to justify issuing a warrant, even if sought, since Hom Way was not a previously established reliable informant. Brennan asserted that agents cannot "roam" the streets of San Francisco following the lead of an unproven informant. The government argued Toy's flight from the front door justified the use of Way's information. However, Brennan found the narcotics agent at Toy's door initially misrepresented his intent by neither readily identifying his purpose nor making an effort to confirm that Toy was the "Blackie Toy" described by Way. Brennan believed Toy's flight could easily have been "a natural desire to repel an apparently unauthorized intrusion." To accept the government's argument "would mean that a vague suspicion could be transformed into probable cause for arrest by reason of ambiguous conduct which the arresting officers themselves had provoked." Brennan added that the Court has "consistently rejected that a search unlawful at its inception may be validated by what it turns up." Therefore, since the agent's uninvited entry into Toy's residence was illegal, the resulting arrest was illegal. Similarly, Toy's statements at the time of arrest cannot be used as evidence since they resulted from illegal police activity. Brennan rejected the government argument that Toy's statements at the time of his arrest were admissible as evidence and not subject to the exclusionary rule because they were spoken at "free will" and were not incriminating.

Brennan continued that if Toy's statements about Yee were unlawfully obtained and excluded as evidence, then narcotics taken from Yee must also be excluded. Since the narcotics seizure resulted from illegal police action, it was also "fruit of the poisonous tree." Lastly, Sun's unsigned statement offered no corroborating evidence about Toy's activity. Information in Toy's statement, being directly connected with the illegal arrest, could not stand alone and be lawfully used as evidence. Brennan concluded Toy's conviction must be reversed based on the lack of submissible evidence not associated in some way with illegal police actions.

Regarding Wong Sun's conviction, Brennan agreed with the court of appeals that Sun's arrest was without probable cause or reasonable grounds. However, Brennan found that Sun's unsigned statement was not fruit of the illegal arrest. That Sun returned voluntarily several days after his initial release to provide the statement indicated to Brennan the statement was sufficiently disconnected from the illegal arrest. Also, though Toy's statement did not sufficiently support Sun's statement, the heroin seized from Yee did serve as independent corroboration. Hence, Sun's statement was legally acceptable evidence. Brennan was not certain as to whether the lower court based its decision on Yee's narcotics alone, or the inadmissible confession of Toy. Therefore, Brennan reversed the court of appeals decision and ruled that Sun be retried.

Justice Clark, joined by Justices Harlan, Stewart, and White, offered the dissenting opinion. Clark wrote that the Court made a "Chinese puzzle" out of basically simple facts and "dashed to pieces . . . standards of probable cause necessary to secure an arrest warrant or to make an arrest without one." Clark asserted this decision placed a much greater burden on officers carrying out duties often involving split-second decisions in uncertain situations. Clark saw efficient police work in the case facts, demonstrated by the swiftness of the four contacts that early June morning. Toy's flight from officers when being informed they were narcotics agents constituted probable cause for further action in Clark's mind. The combination of Way's statements concerning Toy, Toy's flight, Toy's statement at the time of arrest, and the discovery of narcotics subsequently at Yee's residence did not construct a "poisonous tree" and were admissible evidence. As a result, Clark saw no reason to overturn the consistent decisions of the two lower courts regarding Toy's conviction. Regarding Sun, Clark maintained the Court applied too high a standard by dismissing Toy's confession about Sun. Clark wrote, "corroboration merely fortifies the truth of the confession, without independently establishing the crime charged." He believed the two confessions provided key details of their acquisition and use of heroin the day prior to the arrest.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Wong Sun v. United States - Significance, Fruits Of The Poisonous Tree, Impact