The Fruit of the Poisoned Tree Doctrine

The proper execution of search and seizure according to the fourth amendment and case law can be very difficult at times. Many laws are in place to prevent illegal search and seizure. The main and most basic law in place is the exclusionary rule, which is “the understanding that incriminating material must be seized according to constitutional specifications of due process or it will not be allowed as evidence in a criminal trial” (Schmalleger, Pg. 144). The precedent of the exclusionary rule was established in the landmark case of Weeks v. U.S. of 1914. It provided a remedy and deterrent short of criminal prosecution for those anyone who illegally seizes evidence. The exclusionary rule alone however did not cover all search and seizure situations that may arise.

The exclusionary rule dictated that all evidence that was actually seized illegally was not admissible in court. It did not, however, address evidence seized following the illegal action. It took yet another landmark case decided in the U.S. Supreme Court to add on to the exclusionary rule.

The court built upon the exclusionary rule and other evidence rules in the case of Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. U.S. The case tool place in 1918 with the Silverthorne Lumber Company, run by Fredrick Silverthorne and his sons, being accused of avoiding payment of federal taxes. They were then asked to turn over their accounting books but instead declined to do so under the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination. Federal agents then raided the company without a warrant and took the evidence they needed. Upon appeal, the books were ordered to be returned under the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule against illegal search and seizure. The trial continued, and despite the setback of returning the evidence photocopies of the accounting books were admitted into evidence at court. The Silverthorne’s were convicted using the copies as evidence.

The Silverthorne’s appealed the conviction, which rose through the judiciary system eventually reaching the Supreme Court. The court ruled that just as illegally seized evidence cannot be used at trial, neither can evidence be admitted to court that derives from an illegal seizure. The conviction of the Silverthorne’s was overturned and they were released as free men. This case formed the precedent of what is now known as the fruit of the poisoned tree doctrine.

This case, along with others in which mistakes in following procedural law are made and guilty persons are set free, presents a unique problem. At the time when the Silverthorne raid took place, police had followed all standards that were established. The Silverthorne’s had committed a crime and been convicted of it by a jury, yet were allowed to go free because a standard which did not yet exist was not followed. This allowed someone who was guilty to go free because law enforcement violated a law, which at the time did not yet exist. This type of situation begs one to question just how the concept of case law and precedent should be applied. One possible solution to this problem of the guilty going free because a new precedent was not followed is to make the decisions of the cases only apply to all future cases. Another idea to curb this problem is the punishment of those who violate evidence rules but not to release the guilty party. A final possible solution is to allow the U.S. Supreme Court to try theoretical and hypothetical cases. Currently they may only review real cases. A provision such as this would allow the court to render judgment on questions, which may be raised, in future cases before they actually occur. The main problem with this however is that if any of these are instituted, the defendants lose the reason for appeal if they will still be tried and convicted using previous established laws. This makes the third plan seem like the most plausible application.
The term fruit of the poisoned tree doctrine is derived from the fact that id the “tree” or initial evidence is “poisoned” or illegal then all the “fruit” or other evidence it bares is also illegal and inadmissible. It is defined as “a legal principle that excludes from introduction at trial any evidence later developed as a result of an illegal search or seizure” (Schmalleger, Pg. 146). This concept can have very far-reaching effects on the American legal system. For example, if the defense can prove that the original case against a defendant was based on illegal evidence then the court may declare all evidence found afterwards tainted and inadmissible in court of law. Although both the Weeks and Silverthorne decisions had potentially far-reaching applications, it was not until another decision was rendered that the evidence rules took on their full and intended meaning. For over 40 years, the prior decisions were only applicable to the federal government, however with one case known as “the most important search and seizure decision in [American] history” ( everything changed. The case was Mapp v. Ohio.

Cases prior to the Mapp case, including those argued at the Supreme Court level, held that the exclusionary rule did not apply state and local law enforcement. The Mapp case argued that evidence rules should apply to all levels of law enforcement, not just the federal government. The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, agreed with Mapp’s argument saying that the Fourteenth Amendments due process guarantee and it’s idea of incorporation made the evidence principles apply to state and local criminal justice proceedings. The precedents of Weeks and Silverthorne could finally be instituted and everyone was finally accountable to the rule of law.

There are some exceptions to the exclusionary rule and the fruit of the poisoned tree doctrine. One such exception is the inevitable discovery doctrine. It holds that “evidence obtained through an unlawful search or seizure is admissible in court if it can be established, to a very high degree of probability, that normal police investigation would have inevitably led to the discovery of the evidence” ( Another exception is the independent source exception, which states that evidence may be admitted to court if knowledge of the evidence is obtained from a source completely outside of the illegal conduct. Yet another exception is the good fait exception that allows certain illegally seized evidence to be admitted if the seizing party was acting in good faith, meaning they did not know they were acting illegally at the time of the action.

Evidence rules are a very complicated part of procedural and case law. There are many unique laws pertaining to specific instances as well as very broad legal concepts, which provide for the legal seizure of evidence. The evidence rules are constantly under review and are ever changing. The parties conducting searches must take special caution to prevent mistakes and violations of the law so that all incriminating evidence they seize may be used in court to seek the conviction of dangerous individuals.

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