Why One Must Never Eat the Fruit from the Poisonous Tree: The Legal Doctrine That Might Just Save Your Life
Most of us have heard the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve. The story begins in Genesis, with the first man and woman. Naturally, all was perfect, as God intended. But, according to the Bible, Eve was mislead and deceived by the serpent, who tempted her to eat fruit from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This lesson from Sunday school is generally used to illustrate how mankind fell from Grace and failed to live according to God’s plan, thus bringing sin upon ourselves.
The law has a very interesting use for this particular Biblical passage. The doctrine is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” As the doctrine sounds, it alludes to the tale of original sin. While this modern day legal doctrine may not be able to save your eternal soul, it might just keep you out of jail.
What is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine?
If, while searching for evidence of a crime, the police violate a person’s Constitutional rights, in a way, they “poison” or taint the search. So anything they find during that search is now tainted or “poisoned.” Hence the term “poisonous tree.” All the evidence procured by breaking the rules becomes sort of like the fruit that is produced as the result of a bad tree.
What happens if the police try to use “fruits from the poisonous tree?”
When the police suspect someone of committing a crime, they are allowed to investigate the activities, provided there is probable cause. They ask questions, they observe behaviors and patterns, and sometimes they perform invasive searches. They might search an apartment or a person or a car. For all intents and purposes, if one can hide evidence of a crime somewhere, that person, place or thing is subject to a police search.
Probable cause is a tricky term. It does not just mean there “probably” was a crime. No, it really means that there are sufficient facts and circumstances to lead a reasonable person to believe a crime is being or was committed. The law has many complex exceptions and odd ways to apply this rule to different situations. One bad decision by a police officer, and all the evidence acquired can be tossed right out the door, leading to a defendant being allowed to avoid prosecution.
Say John is sitting in his car drinking a soda, waiting for his girlfriend to get off work. Two police officers believe he looks suspicious and instruct him to get out of the car. He complies, he answers all of their questions and there is no evidence of a crime being committed. Next, one of the officers begins demanding to see inside John’s trunk. He refuses. The officers then detain him and pop open his trunk. They discover a small quantity of narcotics and place him under arrest.
If the officers cannot show that they had probable cause to believe there was a crime being committed, chances are very good a judge will not permit the evidence to be used against John. If the judge determines that an “unlawful search and seizure” has taken place, then the evidence is tainted and cannot be used. While this can seem like a bad thing – a criminal goes free – it protects our everyday right to be left alone. It keeps the police honest and deters them from using abusive methods to catch potential criminals. For a terrific example of an unlawful search and seizure, see the landmark case of Mapp v. Ohio.
What to do if you think you were subject to an unlawful search or seizure?
If you or someone you know was arrested based on questionable circumstances, and this resulted in the police finding evidence they should not have even been able to find, then you may have an argument that the evidence is the fruit of the poisonous tree. The police are not attorneys, they are asked to make split-second decisions about highly complex Constitutional questions, such as whether it is okay to conduct a search or whether they have sufficient information upon which to base their reasonable suspicions.
Therefore, you want a skilled criminal defense attorney who can use the law to show that the police overstepped their authority and violated your rights. If successful, you might just see your charges disappear. While every case is different, and no attorney can guarantee a specific result, your best chance of success rests with hiring the right lawyer for the job. The attorneys of Simms Showers, LLP defend the rights of the accused throughout northern Virginia and Baltimore and are ready to help you today.