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Understanding the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine

When you face criminal charges in Pennsylvania, you naturally want the best defense possible. The last thing you want is for a judge or jury to convict you of a crime that could result in a prison sentence that could negatively impact you for the rest of your life.

Well before your trial, you should familiarize yourself with the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court hinted at this long-established legal doctrine in Boyd v. United States, an 1886 case. Over half a century later, the noted Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter actually named it in the decision he wrote in the case of Nardone v. United States.

Meaning of the metaphor

Obviously, few criminal prosecutions have anything to do with literal fruit or trees. What all of them do deal with, however, are evidence against the defendant and the ways in which law enforcement officers go about gathering that evidence. In a nutshell, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine means that the government cannot use any evidence, i.e., “fruit” against a defendant that it gathers via unconstitutional methods, i.e., “poisonous tree.” In other words, any evidence that officers gather illegally will get thrown out of court.

Fourth Amendment considerations

While it may have taken the U.S. Supreme Court roughly 150 years to come up with the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, it did not take this country’s Founding Fathers very long at all to come up with the constitutional amendment from which it flows.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees that “the people” shall be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and that this right “shall not be violated.” While the Amendment does not define “unreasonable,” it does go on to say that two things must underlie all searches and seizures: probable cause for the search and a description of the search place(s) and the “persons or things” making up the seizures.

What all this means for you and the criminal prosecution you face is that should your attorney be able to convince the judge that officers went astray of prescribed search and seizure procedures in their zeal to collect evidence against you, the prosecutor cannot use that evidence against you in court.

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