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Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Chloe Meltzer | August 16, 2022

What most people think when they hear "fruit of the poisonous tree" ^^

Summary: Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine protects people in criminal cases from having illegally-obtained evidence used against them in court. Here is SoloSuit's guide on fruit of the poisonous tree.

If you're involved in a court case, and you hear people talking about the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” you might be wondering if you just stepped into a Snow White fairytale. But fruit of the poisonous tree is just a fancy legal term used to describe the following.

In most court cases, the prosecution cannot use evidence that is obtained illegally. This rule is known as the fruit of the poisonous tree. It is an extension of the exclusionary rule, which prohibits evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment from being admitted in criminal trial proceedings. However, there are a few main exceptions to the doctrine.

Here's everything you need to know about the Fourth Amendment, how fruit of the poisonous tree works, and exceptions to the exclusionary rule.

Let's jump right in.

Understanding the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. The Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. This amendment is a guard against unreasonable searches and seizures. It also states that all people have the right to security in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.. Additionally, it states that no warrants shall be issued without probable cause.

What is the doctrine, fruit of the poisonous tree?

This doctrine is a law that makes evidence that was derived from an illegal search, arrest, or interrogation unusable in court. Essentially, it is when evidence was obtained in a manner that violates Also known as the Derivative Evidence Doctrine, the evidence is referred to as the “fruit” and was essentially tainted because it was obtained by illegal means, which is considered the “poisonous tree.”

This rule was originally established in 1920 by the decision in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. the United States. Later, the phrase "fruit of the poisonous tree" was coined by Justice Frankfurter in his 1939 opinion in Nardone v. the United States. In the doctrine, all illegally obtained evidence must be excluded from being submitted as evidence. However, all evidence obtained or derived from the exploitation of that evidence is also illegal to use. If it is submitted, the courts would consider the evidence as “tainted fruit of the poison tree”.

Three exceptions to the exclusionary cause

There are three main exceptions to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. The evidence will not be excluded if:

  1. It was discovered from an independent source: If the source was fully independent of the illegal activity, it is admissible.
  2. Its discovery was inevitable: When the prosecution can demonstrate that law enforcement would have found the evidence regardless of if they acted unconstitutionally, then the evidence will be admissible.
  3. There was an intervening act of free will: This will break the chain of evidence from the original illegal search. For example, if a defendant was released on his or her own recognizance after an illegal arrest, and then went to the station to confess.

The fourth exception

There is also an exception called the good-faith exception when it comes to the exclusionary rule. If officers are able to illegally obtain the primary evidence in a case that involves the fruit of the poisonous tree, but it was a good-faith exception, then that evidence can be used in court.

The good-faith exception is specific in that if officers who performed a search did so believing they were following the law, and a seizure took place, then the evidence obtained is admissible in court.

For example, if there was a defective search warrant based on no probable cause, but the officer was operating in their own good faith because the judge signed the warrant, then the evidence would not be excluded. For someone in the defendant's chair, this may not seem fair, but it is an exception.

Examples where the fruit of the poisonous tree applies

Unlawful search

In one case involving a man named Carl Smith, there was a ledger book that was seized from him indicating his involvement in drug transactions. It was rendered inadmissible against him at trial and was subject to suppression. In this case, if police used the information contained in the ledger to obtain search warrants to search the homes of the buyers listed, all of the evidence obtained from those searches were not admissible against Carl Smith.

Another example would be if you were to call 911 regarding a domestic issue. If an officer arrives and you invite them into your home where they decide to search your home for drugs and find cocaine on the dining table, you might think this would be an illegal search. However, even though the search was done without a warrant, the officer was invited in, and the drugs were in plain sight.

Alternatively, if a cop finds a gun under the seat of your car, but has no reason to pull you over and search your car, then the search would be deemed illegal. Most times, the gun would also not be admissible in court. The illegal search would be considered the poisonous tree, and the gun is considered the fruit.

Illegal wiretap

If the police begin to listen in on and record the statements of suspected drug dealers but do not get a warrant first this could lead to the doctrine being enacted. If the dealers say that he left some cocaine in an abandoned warehouse for the buyer to pick up, and this leads to the police finding the drugs, it may end up being inadmissible. The illegally recorded statement would be the poisonous tree, while the drugs that the officers found would be the fruit.

Pros and cons of the fruit of the poison tree

Fruit of the poisonous tree can be a positive for those who have been charged with crimes due to accidental or illegal evidence found. However, this can be a serious issue for law enforcement or the courts. Often it could even be seen as something that would prevent evidence from being admitted.

Even though the fruit of the poisonous tree doesn't really apply in civil cases, like debt lawsuits, there are still many ways that debt collectors can break the law and make their evidence invalid. SoloSuit can help you learn more about unfair debt collection practices and how to protect yourself from abusive debt collectors.

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