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What does “fruit of the poisonous tree” mean?

If you face criminal charges in New Jersey, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine could play a large part in your criminal prosecution. As explains, this legal doctrine stands for the proposition that governmental officials, i.e., law enforcement officers, prosecutors and others involved in the criminal judicial system cannot benefit from evidence they seize unconstitutionally.

The U.S. Supreme Court first mentioned the concept behind this doctrine back in the 1886 case of Boyd v. United States. Another 53 years passed, however, before legendary Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter gave the concept its metaphoric name in the case of Nardone v. United States.

Defining “fruit” and “poisonous tree”

In this metaphor, “fruit” refers to the evidence that law enforcement officers gather against you. “Poisonous tree” refers to any unconstitutional method by which the officers collect that evidence. For instance, should they obtain the evidence by means of an unreasonable search and seizure, this represents the poisonous tree, and any evidence they so obtain represents the fruit that they cannot use against you in court. In other words, the judge must throw any such evidence out. All of this stems from your Fourth Amendment guarantee of your right to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures by governmental officials.

Defining “unreasonable”

Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment does not define “unreasonable,” nor has the Supreme Court ever defined the word. This leaves the unreasonability of any given search and seizure dependent upon the factual circumstances surrounding it. Nevertheless, judges almost always find warrantless searches and seizures to be unreasonable. Except in highly unusual circumstances, valid searches and seizures require court-issued warrants based on probable cause.

Bear in mind that a seizure can include not only your property, but also your body. Consequently, if officers arrested you without having a warrant to do so, the judge may determine they made an illegal arrest. Likewise, if they searched your home or car without a warrant, the judge may determine that they made an illegal search. Either of these poisonous tree situations could result in their fruit, i.e., their evidence, being thrown out of court and the judge ordering the prosecutor to drop all charges against you.

This is educational information and not intended to provide legal advice.

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Law Offices of Michael T. Nolan, Jr.
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