Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

The exclusionary rule, as established in 1914 by Weeks v. United States, applied to primary evidence. That means that direct evidence (e.g., a photo album containing photos of missing and presumed dead individuals) obtained by illegal means would be excluded, but that any other evidence (perhaps the burial sites of some of those bodies, which were discovered based on those photos) would still be permitted. However, this was further clarified a few years after the Weeks v. United States decision.

In Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States (1920), the U.S. Supreme Court added another rule of evidence—the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. In this decision, the court declared that the rules of evidence applied not only to evidence directly obtained by illegal means, but also to any other evidence garnered indirectly. For instance, if the police obtained the financial records from the residence of a suspect, but gathered this evidence without a search warrant, they could not use those records to determine what bank accounts the suspect had and then get a judge to sign a legal search warrant in order to seize those bank accounts.

Although the Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States case only applied to federal courts, this doctrine was expanded to state courts in the 1949 case of Wolf v. Colorado. In effect, in Wolf v. Colorado (1949), the Supreme Court held that state courts had to enact procedures to protect the rights of citizens against police abuses of search and seizure.

Exceptions to the Search Warrant Rule

The Fourth Amendments intent is that search warrants be secured by the police in order for a search and seizure to take place. In order for the police to obtain a search warrant, there must be probable cause. Probable cause means that there is a likelihood of a direct link between a suspect and a crime (Fagin, 2007).

However, over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized a number of circumstances in which the police can conduct a search or seizure without a search warrant.The most important of these search warrant exceptions are:

Search incident to a lawful arrest Plain-view searches

  • • Consent to search
  • • Exigent circumstances
  • • Search of automobiles
  • • Search of persons: stop and frisk
  • • Public safety exceptions
  • • Good faith exceptions

Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest

When the police are making a lawful arrest, they are entitled to a search of the person arrested without a search warrant. This right was articulated by the Supreme Court in the case of Chimel u California (1969). In this case, the court ruled that the police can not only search the person, but they can also search the area within the immediate control of the individual. They cannot extend this search beyond the person s reach or to other rooms (Fagin, 2007).

Plain-View Searches

Evidence that is within plain view of a police officer is subject to confiscation. The court declared in Harris v. United States in 1968 that if a police officer has the legal right to be somewhere, any contraband that is in his or her view can be seized.

If, for instance, a police officer has been invited into a suspect’s house, and the officer sees stacks of money, along with weapons and plastic bags that could contain heroin, on a nearby table, such evidence can be seized. However, the police cannot look in closets, in covered containers, or under a tablecloth, for example. On the other hand, the court has ruled that the police do not have to act blind or stupid. What this means is that the police do not have to be careless or inattentive. If an officer sees a stack of wooden boxes with the words “Rifles—Property of the U.S. Army” stenciled on the sides, the officer has probable cause to believe that there are guns in the boxes and that they very likely are not the legal property of the individual.

Consent to Search

A warrantless search can also be conducted if a person gives consent to search. For example, according to the Supreme Court, if an individual allows an officer to come into her home, and then consents to the request, “Do you mind if I look around?” she has given consent to a search and any evidence located can be seized by the officer. That includes looking in closed containers in a car (Florida v. Jimeno, 1991).

Exigent Circumstances

Officers can make an arrest or conduct a search without a warrant under exigent circumstances. An exigent circumstance refers to a situation in which a police officer must act swiftly and the officer determines that he or she does not have time to go to a court to seek a warrant (Cole and Smith, 2007). For example, if officers are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspected felon or if there are sounds of a struggle coming from within a house and it is possible someone might be in danger, officers need not stop to obtain a warrant and thereby risk losing evidence or allowing a suspect to get away.

To justify a warrantless search, officers do not need to prove that there was a potential threat to public safety' (Cole and Smith, 2007). Officers often have to make on-the-spot decisions to apprehend a suspect or seek evidence when it is thought that delay might result in evidence being lost or destroyed. Practically speaking, judges are often reluctant to second-guess a police officer who has had to make a split-second decision when the urgency of a situation required—in the officers judgment—a warrantless search (Cole and Smith. 2007).

Search of an Automobile

If the police have probable cause, they can search an automobile without first obtaining a search warrant.The courts took note of the special circumstances of cars and motorized vehicles as long ago as 1925 and established the Carroll Doctrine.

The Carroll Doctrine came out of the case of Carroll v. United States (1925). The special circumstances of a car or automobile, of course, are that cars and other motorized means of transportation are readily mobile and they' can be moved if there is a delay while an officer is attempting to get a search warrant. In the Carroll Doctrine, the Supreme Court stated that evidence obtained in the search of an automobile without a warrant is permissible if the police have probable cause to believe a crime has occurred.

The exclusionary rule applies to automobile searches if the officer does not have the right to stop a car and driver in the first place. Lacking a reason to make a traffic stop makes any evidence confiscated inadmissible.

One other aspect of an auto search is the searching of a vehicle that has been impounded. If, for instance, a car has been illegally' parked in a streets no parking zone and is towed to an impound lot, a search and inventory of the belongings of the car can be conducted. Any contraband found in an inventory' search can be used as evidence (Cole and Smith, 2007).

Search of a Person: The Pat-Down Search

We have already discussed the pat-down search or the stop and frisk. This is essentially a warrantless search because, as indicated previously, it is a limited search, as only the outer clothing of the individual can be patted down. And the primary purpose of a stop and frisk is to ensure the safety of the police officer.

Public Safety Exceptions

There are many circumstances encountered by law enforcement when the public good is paramount. For example, the police can pursue a fleeing felon into an apartment building and search for the individual. Likewise, if an armed suspect who just robbed a bank and shot a bank employee flees into a nearby neighborhood, the police could search houses and other places where the suspect or his weapon could be found.

Furthermore, public safety concerns allow for the search of airline passengers, and travellers (and their vehicles) who are crossing a border into another country. Evidence seized in these types of searches could legally justify an arrest and could be used as evidence in court (Florida v. Bostick, 1991).

Good Faith Exception

Another search that has been authorized by the court as not requiring a search warrant is when the initial warrant has an error, thus rendering it invalid. For example, if during the filling out of a search warrant, the wrong address is entered on the warrant and the police carry out a search at that incorrect address, evidence found at the wrong address can be seized. In effect, the court has said that there is no misconduct by the police and it was a good faith mistake on the part of law enforcement.

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