The “fruit of the poisonous tree” is a constitutional criminal legal doctrine. When physical evidence is illegally obtained by the government in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the accused may have the remedy of excluding the illegally seized evidence. Exclusion is the powerful remedy because it forbids the government from using that illegally seized evidence in the prosecution. Physical evidence may be a firearm, narcotics, wire intercepts, finger prints, DNA, …etc. Without the narcotics evidence (and any testimony about the narcotics evidence), it is impossible to prosecute a defendant for possession of cocaine.
Keep in mind, however, the amendments to the constitution are not self-executing and require the aggrieved person to raise the issue in court. To trigger the Fourth Amendment, there must be governmental action (as opposed to a private citizen finding evidence). Without governmental action, there is no Fourth Amendment violation.
Illegally seized evidence only has relevance in criminal or quasi-criminal prosecutions. If a defendant believes that law enforcement officers illegally seized evidence or arrested the defendant, the defendant must raise the issue in the trial court. This is typically done through a motion to suppress the illegally seized evidence.
The Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
At the time the Fourth Amendment was ratified, most Americans across the land remembered the abuses of the British troops and understood legal nuances.[i] Many of these nuances have been lost to time. One thing was for certain, the people still want to be secure from indiscriminate, arbitrary, and capricious governmental harassment in the form of general warrants and writs of assistance.[ii]
The legal phrase “fruit of the poisonous tree”[iii] was first coined by Justice Felix Frankfurter describing evidence that had been unreasonably seized by the government. See Nardone v. U.S., 308 U.S. 338, 341, 60 S.Ct. 266, 84 L.Ed. 307 (1939). Over the next few years, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” became the term of art referring to any illegally seized evidence and its court remedy, the Weeks Exclusionary Rule.[iv] In 1920, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., explained in Silverthorne Lumber[v] that the Weeks Exclusionary Rule applied to Fourth Amendment violations in federal court.
Although based in the language of the Fourth Amendment, the exclusionary rule remedy grew out of an understanding of fairness and purpose. If the government could prosecute someone with illegally obtained evidence, then what exactly was the purpose of the Fourth Amendment? And how was that fair? The government could not/should not get a windfall by circumventing the requirements of the Fourth Amendment…thus, the exclusionary rule remedy.
As stated, however, the problem was that at that time the Weeks Exclusionary Rule only applied to federal court. In America, there are 51 criminal jurisdictions – the fifty states and the federal system. After Weeks, the states were free to adopt whatever understanding each stated wanted to use – some allowed illegally seized evidence to be used in state prosecutions and some did not. It was chaos.
Ten years after Nardone, Justice Frankfurter, who had so eloquently coined the phrase “fruit of the poisonous tree” in Nardone, penned a strange majority opinion in Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 69 S.Ct. 1359, 93 L.Ed. 1782 (1949). In Wolf, Justice Frankfurter stated that the Weeks Exclusionary Rule did not apply to the states. It was a dark day for the Fourth Amendment; it would not be until 1961 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081 (1961)[vi] that this mess would all get straightened out once-and-for-all. Mapp overruled Wolf and applied the Weeks Exclusionary Rule to the Fourth Amendment via the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.[vii]
If the trial court determines that the illegally seized evidence is “fruit of the poisonous tree,” then the government will most likely not be able to use that evidence against the accused.[viii] The basics are relatively easy to grasp. On the other hand, what is and is not illegally seized evidence depends largely on the factual scenario.
If you or a loved one is being prosecuted and believe that the evidence against you or loved one was illegally seized (or have any Florida criminal matter that you want to discuss), then do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 for a review of the situation. The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
Anthony Candela is a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles primarily criminal trials and appeals. He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. He was board certified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial in August 2008, recertified August 2013 and is pending recertification in 2018. He is also admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #agoodtampadefenselawyer
[i] Boyd v. U.S., 116 U.S. 616, 6 S.Ct. 524, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886)
[ii] The general understanding of a writ of assistance is a court order to a law enforcement officer to perform some task. The abuses of the writ of assistance was one of a few sparks that led to the start of the Revolutionary War.
[iii] Nardone v. U.S., 308 U.S. 338, 341, 60 S.Ct. 266, 84 L.Ed. 307 (1939).
[iv] Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652 (1914)
[v] Silverthorn Lumber Co v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 40 S.Ct. 182, 64 L.Ed. 319 (1920)
[vi] Justice Frankfurter was one of three justices that dissented in Mapp.
[vii] See United States v. Ceccolini, 435 U.S. 268, 98 S.Ct. 1054, 55 L.Ed.2d 268 (1978); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 83 S.Ct. 407, 9 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963); Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 60 S.Ct. 266, 84 L.Ed. 307 (1939); Silverthorn Lumber Co v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 40 S.Ct. 182, 64 L.Ed. 319 (1920); and Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081, (1961) overruling Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 69 S.Ct. 1359, 93 L.Ed. 1782 (1949) (Applies the Weeks Exclusionary Rule to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment. The Weeks Exclusionary Rule is designed to prevent police misconduct and prohibits prosecuting attorneys from using illegally seized evidence. See Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652 (1914).)
[viii] Like any constitutional rule, there are very few limited exceptions.