Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The principle that prohibits the use of secondary evidence in trial that was culled directly from primary evidence derived from an illegal SEARCH AND SEIZURE.

The "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine is an offspring of the EXCLUSIONARY RULE. The exclusionary rule mandates that evidence obtained from an illegal arrest, unreasonable search, or coercive interrogation must be excluded from trial. Under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, evidence is also excluded from trial if it was gained through evidence uncovered in an illegal arrest, unreasonable search, or coercive interrogation. Like the exclusionary rule, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was established primarily to deter law enforcement from violating rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The name fruit of the poisonous tree is thus a metaphor: the poisonous tree is evidence seized in an illegal arrest, search, or interrogation by law enforcement. The fruit of this poisonous tree is evidence later discovered because of knowledge gained from the first illegal search, arrest, or interrogation. The poisonous tree and the fruit are both excluded from a criminal trial.

Assume that a police officer searches the automobile of a person stopped for a minor traffic violation. This violation is the only reason the officer conducts the search; nothing indicates that the driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol, and no other circumstances would lead a reasonable officer to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime. This is an unreasonable search under the FOURTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution.

Assume further that the officer finds a small amount of marijuana in the vehicle. The driver is subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance and chooses to go to trial. The marijuana evidence culled from this search is excluded from trial under the exclusionary rule, and the criminal charges are dropped for lack of evidence.

Also suppose that before the original charges are dismissed, the police officers ask a magistrate or judge for a warrant to search the home of the driver. The only evidence used as a basis, or PROBABLE CAUSE, for the warrant is the small amount of marijuana found in the vehicle search. The magistrate, unaware that the marijuana was uncovered in an illegal search, approves the warrant for the home search.

The officers search the driver's home and find a lawn mower stolen from a local park facility. Under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, the lawn mower must be excluded from any trial on theft charges because the search of the house was based on evidence gathered in a previous illegal search.

The Supreme Court first hinted at the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 40 S. Ct. 182, 64 L. Ed. 319 (1920). In Silverthorne, defendant Frederick W. Silverthorne was arrested on suspicion of federal violations in connection with his lumber business. Government agents then conducted a warrantless, illegal search of the Silver-thorne offices. Based on the evidence discovered in the search, the prosecution requested more documents, and the court ordered Silverthorne to produce the documents. Silverthorne refused and was jailed for CONTEMPT of court.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the contempt judgment. In its argument to the High

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Court, the government conceded that the search was illegal and that the prosecution was not entitled...

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