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What does "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree" Mean?

Posted by Terry A. Wapner | Feb 12, 2014 | 0 Comments

Have you ever heard the phrase: Fruit of the Poisonous Tree? It can be a head scratcher for many people, but it's an important concept in the area of DUI and criminal defense. Technically, it means that evidence gathered by illegal means must be excluded from trial. How do officers obtain it? Well, it can be gathered in a number of ways, but a common way is through an illegal interrogation.

The case that developed the fruit of the poisonous tree concept was Wong Sun v. United States (1963). In this case, the prosecution introduced drugs into evidence. However, the only reason federal officers had learned about these drugs was through a witness that was only identified when the defendant made a statement during an unlawful arrest.

This was a U.S. Supreme Court case and the Court ruled that any and all evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful arrest was considered fruit of the poisonous tree and must be excluded.

The fruit of the poisonous tree concept goes back to the Exclusionary Rule. This rule is available to the defendant in a criminal case as a remedy for illegal searches that end up violating the defendant's 4th Amendment rights. The 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In cases where the Exclusionary Rule applies, illegally obtained evidence must be excluded. The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine goes one step further and says that not only is the original evidence excluded, but so is anything else discovered as a result of the initial, unlawful search.

There are some other, related concepts that go along with the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. These include the following:

  • Admissible Evidence: This is the type of evidence that you are probably most familiar with. It is generally straightforward. This is the type of evidence that is allowed during a trial. To be permitted, it must make something more or less probable.
  • Excluded Evidence: This is what I have been talking about in this post. This is evidence that may be relevant and admissible, but cannot be admitted for some reason besides irrelevancy.
  • Good Faith: When the term “good faith” is used in the legal context, it is meant to imply that there was a reasonable, honest belief involved. In addition, there was no malice or bad intent used and no intent to defraud. Good faith is usually considered in light of all the facts and is used in a case-by-case basis.

When talking about the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, one must keep in mind that there are three exceptions to the rule. In the following three situations, evidence will not be excluded, even though it had been obtained unlawfully:

  • If the evidence was discovered from a source independent of the illegal act;
  • If discovery of the evidence was inevitable; or
  • If there is attenuation between the illegal activity and the discovery of the evidence.

Criminal charges are never simple. The legal paperwork involved is nothing short of a nightmare for most people. You don't have to fight your charges on your own! I have helped many people in the Fresno area defend DUI and other alcohol-related charges and I can help you, too!

About the Author

Terry A. Wapner

Terry A. Wapner confines his practice to the defense of persons accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and related crimes.


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