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Understanding the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

February 25, 2022

The presentation of applicable evidence is an essential component to any criminal trial in Tucson, Arizona. To be admissible in court, however, that evidence must have been obtained legally. If not, the evidence in question may be subject to the exclusionary rule and the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. 

What is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine?

The ‘fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine’ is an evidentiary rule of law that prohibits the use of certain evidence in a trial that was obtained through other illegally gathered evidence. This can relate to physical evidence, including drugs or weapons, and any information that was obtained from a suspect during a police interrogation under false or illegal pretenses. The doctrine was created in 1914 after a police search of a defendant’s residence yielded certain evidence that led to a conviction. The Supreme Court overturned the decision after learning that the search was conducted illegally, thus creating the ‘exclusionary rule.’ The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was added during the case Silverthorne Lumber Co. V. United States

How does the doctrine relate to the exclusionary rule?

The exclusionary rule dictates that any evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution cannot be used in a legal trial. The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine is essentially an addendum to the exclusionary rule, extending the boundaries of the tenet to any evidence gathered in an unlawful manner. This can include an illegal search and seizure or police arrest. Evidence that falls under the exclusionary rule is known as the ‘poisonous tree,’ while the so-called ‘fruit’ refers to evidence that was gathered because of the ‘tree.’ 

Are there any exceptions to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine?

There are several exceptions to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Evidence that was illegally obtained may be admissible in court if it falls under one of the following categories: 

Independent source: The evidence in question was obtained from a separate ‘untainted’ source that was not related to the initial illegal incident. Evidence gathered in an illegal search may be admissible if the same evidence is later discovered under a lawful warrant. 

Good faith: The illegal evidence was gathered by a police officer who genuinely believed they were acting in good faith. For example, an officer could have gathered evidence under a search warrant that was later discovered to be legally unsound. The officer thought they were acting lawfully at the time, so the evidence may still be usable in court. This may be up to the discretion of the presiding justice. 

Inevitable discovery: A certain piece of evidence was obtained illegally, but would have been discovered anyway, it will usually be admissible in court. In the case of Nix V. Williams, the latter party argued that he had given up the location of a missing body without exercising his right to counsel, thus violating the Sixth Amendment and rendering the evidence irrelevant. However, the court allowed the evidence to stand because they reasoned the body would have been found anyway due to an ongoing search. 

Attenuation: Evidence was gathered after an interruption to the original illegal search. For example, suppose a citizen is apprehended by a police officer without cause. However, the officer then finds an outstanding warrant for their arrest and conducts a search. Any evidence the officer obtains after the discovery of the warrant would most likely be admissible. 

How can a defense attorney use the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine to help my case?

Proving the illegal obtainment of evidence can be difficult to prove to a judge or jury, especially by an amateur lawyer. An experienced defense attorney can skillfully navigate the intricacies of the doctrine and build a solid case to refute any illegally obtained evidence. The omission of illegal evidence can often lead to a complete dismissal, so it’s essential to have an excellent defense attorney in your corner from the moment you are arrested or accused. 

With over 20 years of proven legal experience, you can rest assured that Janet Atlschuler will fight for you—inside and outside of the courtroom. If you have been accused of a crime in Tucson, AZ, don’t hesitate to contact Ms. Altschuler’s law office as soon as possible. For your convenience, she can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To request a complimentary initial consultation, call 520-829-4460 or send us a message here.

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