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Analysis of the 'Fruit of the Poisonous Tree' Doctrine

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Published: 31st Aug 2021

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Jurisdiction / Tag(s): US Law


The “fruit of the poisonous tree” is a doctrine that is very similar to the exclusionary rule. Under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine evidence obtained from illegal arrest, search or seizure is not admissible in the court of law. [1] Such evidence is excluded by the courts at the time of trial and the State is prevented from using the same as evidence. In this paper, I intend to trace the history of this exclusionary rule or the ‘fruits of the poisonous tree’ doctrine to understand and analyze the significance of this doctrine. I intend to do this by examining the various case-laws in this regard which help us in comprehending the judicial reasoning for the application or non-application of the rule. In my concluding note, I analyze the pros and cons of the exclusionary rule and the societal costs that are incurred in the application and non-application of this doctrine.


The fruit of the poisonous tree is a legal metaphor that was developed by the Courts of the United States of America. The meaning of this metaphor is that, evidence (fruit) is inadmissible if it has been obtained as a result of illegal search, arrest and coercive interrogation (i.e. the source of the evidence is poisonous). It is so because it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. [2]


The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the part of Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” It is in the light of this that we should examine the cases with respect to the fruit of the poison tree doctrine. The rule was first hinted in the case Boyd v. U.S. [3]

The issue in this case was with respect to a provision in the statute which authorizes a court of the United States on motion of the government authority to require the defendant to produce in courts his invoice, private books or papers. The main question that the court had to consider was whether this was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court in this case gave a broad interpretation of the term ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’. The court stated that “it is not only the braking of his doors or the rummaging of his drawers that constitute the offence, but it is invasion of his right of private security, personal liberty and private property. [4] It is equivalent to the term ‘search and seizure’ given in the Fourth Amendment and hence is unconstitutional. The term ‘unreasonable searches and seizure’ should be liberally construed to give effect to the Fourth Amendment. Not all searches and seizures are prohibited. Only ‘unreasonable’ searches and seizures are prohibited.

Thus we see that, in this case, the Court liberally construed the meaning of ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ even mean the production of a party’s books or materials in court by compelling him as the statute provided. This case also interpreted giving due regard and emphasis to the rights of an individual. Let us now look at the subsequent cases which used this doctrine. The case which enumerated the doctrine of the fruit of the poisonous tree was a 1914 case Weeks v. United States. [5] In this case, the police officers had entered the defendant’s house in his absence without a search warrant and had seized some papers and documents which were later produced during trial. The court held that this was a violation of the Fourth Amendment which emphasized on the principle that ‘every man’s house is his castle’ and hence unreasonable searches and seizures are prohibited. [6] Justice Day further said that the Fourth Amendment intended to secure the citizen in person and property against lawful invasion of the sanctity of his home by officers of law. [7] Hence, in holding them and using them for trial in the lower court was unconstitutional and hence a prejudicial error has occurred.

In both these cases, we see that the courts have gone on to classify the instances as coming within the phrase ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’. However, they have not laid down what amounts to a reasonable seizure. The term ‘unreasonable’ mentioned in the Statute was hence left to the subjective interpretation of the courts. The court in another case, Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. U.S. [8] took a stricter stand with respect to such evidence. Justice Holes, in this case went on to say that if such evidence is permitted “it reduces the Fourth Amendment to a form of words.” It is not that the evidence shall not be used before the court, but it shall not be used at all. [9] This I feel means that the court implied that such evidence cannot even be used to derive other evidence which would be helpful to the case. This essentially means that evidence obtained from evidence unlawfully seized cannot be used in the court of law. This court therefore gave a narrower interpretation with regard to this doctrine. Justice Holmes however, went on to say that if knowledge of them is gained from another source, they may be proved, but not the knowledge gained by the Government’s own wrong. [10] This was also the case which sowed the seeds for the independent source exception which was used in subsequent cases. Since the courts did not lay down the scope for what amounts to ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ we see that they did not have a uniform stand. For instance, in Olmstead v. United States [11] the issue was whether the policemen had violated the Fourth Amendment when they had collected evidence by tapping the telephone of the accused. However, in doing so they had not trespassed on the property of the defendants and the wire-tapping was done in the basement.

It is my submission that if the ratio decidendi of the case of Boyd’s case is applied, then this issue can be liberally construed and one could say that the object of the amendment is to secure the privacy of a man in his home from intrusions and it does not mean that there should be actual rummaging of drawers or physical search. [12]

The mere fact that his right of privacy was given to him was a violation of what was guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment. This was also the opinion of the dissenting judges Justice Brandeis, Justice Stone and Justice Holmes. Justice Brandeis said that when a telephone is tapped it is not only the tapping of the suspect that is involved but every other person he contacts through the phone and hence the right of the people to be secure in their homes is affected. [13] Justice Holmes even went to the extent of saying that it is a lesser evil that some criminals escape than that the Government should play an ignoble part. Chief Justice Taft who delivered the opinion of the court said that since the interception was done without trespassing the homes of the defendants, there was no ‘privacy’ of home or right to be secure in their home that was affected. There was no search or seizure and the Amendment envisages a situation with physical search of his material things. [14] The common law also permits the admissibility of evidence that was unlawfully produced. Hence the Fourth Amendment should not be stretched to encompass such situations. [15] The landmark case with respect to the fruit of the poison tree is the case Mapp v. Ohio. [16] In this case, the policemen forcibly entered Mapp’s house without a search warrant and conducted an unlawful search of the house after cuffing her feet. They then found some lewd, lascivious books the possession of which was against the law of the State. The main issue was whether the evidence could be admissible in the court of law. The court in this case held that the evidence was inadmissible because it was seized through an unlawful search. Furthermore, they opined that the right of privacy that the Fourth Amendment provides for was violated in this case and hence the evidence is inadmissible. The court then went on to say that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter the law officers from obtaining evidence illegally and to compel respect for the constitutional guarantee and “if the criminal is to go free, then it must be the law that sets him free”. The judges were of the opinion that a close interrelationship exists between the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment and since the latter guarantees the citizen right against self-incrimination, it s imperative that the exclusionary rule should be followed and hence the constitutional provisions should be liberally construed. Cases prior to Mapp’s case had also stressed on the aspect of the inter-relationship between Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment. The Mapp case was soon followed by another landmark case that is relevant to the history of this doctrine i.e. the Wong Sun v. United States. [17] This was a complicated case that came before the courts that dealt with the applicability of the doctrine of fruits of the poisonous tree. I have laid down the facts in bullet points for easy understanding of the facts of this case. In this case,

Hom Way was arrested because the police officers found an ounce of heroin in his possession. He said that he had purchased the same from Blackie Toy who ran a laundry on Leavenworth Street.

The same morning the police officers went to Leavenworth Street and knocked on ‘Oye’s Laundry’ which was run by James Wah Toy. There was nothing on record to show that James Wah Toy was Blackie Toy. Toy, took off running when the officer announced that he was a Federal Narcotics agent. They broke down the door to his apartment and followed him to his bedroom where they arrested hm.

Toy then said that Johnny Yee and he had smoked some heroin the previous night.

Upon arresting Johnny Yee, and recovering an ounce of heroin from his bureau drawer, Johnny Yee said that Wong Sun had given it to him.

Wong Sun was then arrested without a warrant. No additional drugs were found.

Toy and Wong Sun made incriminating statements to the police and they refused to sign them.

Four evidentiary pieces of evidence were challenged by Wong and Toy to be fruits of the poisonous tree. They are,

  1. The statements made by Toy in his bedroom
  2. The heroin seized from Yee
  3. Toy’s unsigned statement
  4. Wong Sun’s unsigned statement.

The court in this case held that the mere fact that Toy ran away when the police officer did not point towards his guilt and his arrest in his case in this case was illegal. Hence the statements made by Toy cannot be used as evidence at all against Toy and Yee. Hence the Toy’s conviction was set aside. However, in case of Wong Sun, he had made his statements voluntarily after several days of his arrest (and he wasn’t in custody when he made the statements). Hence, these were not fruits of the poisonous tree with respect to Wong and thus these could be admitted as evidence. However, the statements of Toy (co-defendant) cannot be used to corroborate Wong Sun’s evidence and to ensure that this was not done by the lower court, Wong Sun was entitled to a new trial.

We will now look at the judicial reasoning in another well-known case in this regard Stone v. Powell. [18] In this case, Powell and three companions entered a liquor store and entered into an altercation with the store manager about the theft of a bottle of wine. Thereafter Powell shot the store manager’s wife. Ten hours later, the police arrested Powell and in the search discovered a revolver which was later found to be the weapon that was used to kill the woman. Powell sought to argue that this was fruits of an illegal search and are hence inadmissible. The court in this case chose to differ from the earlier cases in this regard. The court said that “the answer whether the evidence is admissible or not is to be found by weighing the utility of the exclusionary rule against the costs of extending it to collateral review of the fourth amendment claims. When applying the exclusionary rule the ultimate question of guilt or innocence that should be the central concern of a criminal proceeding is diverted.” [19] Application of the rule often frees the guilty. Furthermore although the rule is to deter police misconduct, often have the opposite effect and generate disrespect for the law. The time has hence come to modify its reach since it has demonstrated its flaws over the years. [20] Over the years there has been miscarriage of justice when the ‘constitutional blunders’ and the exclusionary rule is used. Furthermore, the reason for having the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination is because if the accused is compelled to give evidence, there is a suspicion if he is telling the truth and hence the same is unreliable. This is not the case as to the reliable evidence- in this case, the pistol, packet of heroin, counterfeit money which points towards the guilt of the evidence. In Boyd’s case and Weeks case the courts had emphasized that “compelling a person to produce his private books” and “keeping a person’s private papers” were different from seizure of stolen or forfeited goods or other proofs of guilt. This was the original position from which the courts have deviated and have even gone to the extent of excluding stolen goods unlawfully seized. [21]

Therefore, we see that the courts realized the backlash of excluding important evidence that can clearly point towards the guilt of the excused. The court held that the evidence in this case was admissible. It even went to the purpose of the enactment of the Fourth and Fifth amendments and held that the purpose of the amendment was not to punish police misconduct and allow criminals to go scot-free. Cases which arose during this period like U.S. v. Calandra [22] and U.S. v. Janis [23] have also been reluctant in applying the exclusionary rule. Let us now examine the court’s opinion in the U.S. v. Janis [24] case. In this case, the main issue was whether the evidence seized by a state criminal law enforcement officer in a good faith but nonetheless unconstitutionally, was inadmissible in a civil proceeding. The court referred to the ‘silver-platter- exception which was overruled by the courts. According to this doctrine, the state officers could engage in unconstitutional searches and if such evidence was handed over to the Federal officers on a silver platter, then the evidence would still be admissible. With respect to the issue at hand, the court like in Powell’s case looked at the doctrine of fruits of the poisoned tree as a doctrine that was introduced to punish the law officers. Based on this, it held that the officers were already frustrated and punished when the evidence collected by them is excluded from criminal trial. [25] Furthermore, the court said that the costs of the exclusionary rule are high and hence it would be unjustified in extending the rule to civil proceedings. Another case which has expressed a similar opinion is Arizona v. Evans. [26] In this case, the accused was arrested during a traffic stop when a patrol’s car indicated that there was an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for his arrest. A subsequent search revealed a bag of marijuana in his car. He sought to quash the marijuana seized as a fruit of a poisonous tree, since the misdemeanor warrant had been quashed. The fruits of the poison tree doctrine need not be applied where the erroneous information was a result of clerical errors. The exclusionary rule was created by the courts to protect people against violations of Fourth Amendment through its deterrent effect. The amendment does not explicitly preclude such evidence. Hence this doctrine need be given effect to when the mistake is due to a genuine clerical error and the object cannot be achieved by excluding it. Thus we see that the strict liberal interpretation given by the courts have been diluted to a large extent in the recent cases. Moreover, the courts have held that, in order to apply the exclusion rule, the accused should prove that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy which had been violated when the search was conducted. It is not the third party’s right which should be violated. It is the victim’s right that should have been violated because of the illegal search or seizure. [27] Further, cases like U.S. v. Havens, [28] have opined that when there is minimal deterrent effect of the rule, it should not be used. Justice White held that evidence which is tainted can be used to impeach a defendant’s false testimony because there results an “impairment of the integrity of the fact finding goals of the criminal trial” by not allowing the evidence to be used to impeach the defendant who falsely testifies during cross-examination.

In Pennsylvania Board of probation and parole v. Scott, [29] a condition was imposed that during his parole Scott was not to possess weapons. Based on the evidence that he had violated the same, the parole officers, entered his property and found firearms, bow and arrows. During his parole hearing the accused objected to this on the ground that the search in this case was ‘unreasonable’ as per the Fourth Amendment. The issue before the court was the fruit of the poisonous tree was applicable in parole proceedings. The court held that the federal exclusionary rule does not bar the introduction of evidence obtained by violation of Fourth Amendment is Parole Revocation Proceedings. The exclusionary rule was a judicially create mechanism for deterring illegal searches and seizures and it does not bar the introduction of illegally procured evidence in all cases. It only applies where its deterrence benefits outweigh the social costs in precluding consideration of reliable probative evidence. Application of the rule in this case would lead to minimal deterrent effect and it should not be applied because people like parolees are more likely to commit future crimes than average citizens.

Thus we see that the court viewed the rule as something that should be applicable only when the judge feels that the application of the same would help in achieving its purpose and when the non-application of the rule would outweigh the social costs if the evidence is precluded. The courts we see have changed their outlook on the same and have viewed the application of this rule with reluctance. The courts had in the earlier cases, opined that a liberal interpretation should be given o the rule whereas during the 1970s and after, we see a change in this attitude. This reluctance can also be sensed when one looks at the exceptions that had evolved in the process of judicial reasoning. In U.S. v. Leon, [30] a search warrant was issued to search the respondent’s house after receiving information that he and his friend were selling drugs. After seizure of the drugs, the affidavit upon which the search warrant was founded was later found to be insufficient. The evidence was sought to be suppressed at trial. Justice White who delivered the majority opinion of the court stated that the doctrine of fruits of a poisonous tree is applied only when the warrant is founded on an affidavit recklessly or knowingly false. In this case, the purpose of the exclusionary rule i.e. to deter police misconduct would not be furthered because the police officers had committed no mistake and had acted in good faith. It should be applicable only on a case to case basis and when the judge has been misled while issuing the warrant about the insufficiency of the affidavit. Hence, the court added the good-faith exception and held that evidence obtained in good faith and no mistake of the police officers should be acceptable. In Nix v. Williams, [31] the police officers started a conversation with him which led him to give incriminating statements about himself. The police officers had done so despite the instruction that they were not to talk to him during the journey. His statements led the police officers to the body of the ten year old child who had been murdered. When the police officers arrived at the spot, the 200 people who were searching the area terminated their activity as the accused led them to the body of the child. The issue was whether this was inadmissible due to the fruits of the poison tree doctrine. The court held that the exclusionary rule was applied by the courts to deter police misconduct and not to put the prosecution in a better position than it would have been if illegality had not transpired. The court made a reference to the independent source exception which allows admission of evidence obtained by wholly independent means. It further went on to say that, though this exception was not applicable here, its rationale is wholly consistent with the inevitable discovery exception. If the prosecution can prove by a preponderance of probabilities that the information would ultimately have been discovered, then the exclusion of the evidence would have little basis. In applying this exception, there is no need to show an absence of bad faith on the part of the police officers. The evidence clearly showed that they would have inevitably discovered the body and hence it would be unfair to exclude the evidence. Another case which laid down an exception is the New York v. Quarles. [32] In this case, a woman approached two police officers and alleged that the accused had raped her and was in possession of a gun. A police went into the shopping complex in search of a gun and spotted the person who matched the description of the accused. The police officer then ran behind him and caught hold of him. The police officer after frisking him got hold of the holster and promptly asked him where the gun was. He pointed towards the cartons and the police officer retrieved the gun. Before further questioning, the police officer read out his Miranda warnings to him but the accused said that he would answer questions without an attorney. The issue in this case was whether his evidence should be excluded since he had not been read his Miranda rights. The court held that although this was a case of Miranda rights violations, nevertheless there is a public safety exception to the rule that Miranda warnings should be read to the accused before his answers may be admitted into evidence. In this case, the fact of the gun being present in the supermarket posted a danger to the public because an accomplice or customer may make use of it. An answer was needed to ensure that future danger to the public did not result. [33]


In this part of my paper, I am going to analyze this doctrine with respect to the societal costs in the exclusion of relevant and probative evidence. The courts as we see have increasingly interpreted the exclusionary rule as something that had evolved in order to deter police misconduct more than an effective means of ensuring the rights of the citizen under the Constitution. [34] The basis for this rule is the principle that ends do not always justify the means used to reach them. [35] If the evidence had been procured by the violation of the rights of the citizen, the same were ‘poisonous’ and were inadmissible. The exclusionary rule disincentivizes police misconduct when the evidence is suppressed even though it lets the criminal go scot-free and undermines the truth finding process. [36] It is at this juncture that we need to do a cost-benefit analysis of the same. As pointed out by the judges in many cases, there is no empirical evidence to show that the police officers were disincentivized by the same. Now, take a case where a 50 year old man rapes a 7 year old girl, brutally murders her and the evidence that clearly holds the victim culpable is sought to be set aside on the ground that it violated the rights of the accused. In this case, if the evidence is permitted to be excluded to correct the police misconduct, then there is a gross miscarriage of justice because it permits the criminal to go free if there was no other evidence that pointed towards his guilt. Hence, in order to prevent such a situation there is a need for a modification of the exclusionary rule where the judges would weigh the costs in excluding the evidence with the extent of the violation of the rights of the accused. This should be seen in the nature of the crime committed. This approach would definitely be for the better of the society because it does not permit a criminal who has been accused of a grave offence go scot-free. It would also be fair because it takes into consideration the extent of the rights violated. However, such an approach would not be praiseworthy in my opinion because there is no ‘standard’ to rely on and the admissibility of evidence is left to the subjectivity of the Judge. Leaving this to the whims and fancies of a judge would hamper the evolution of the criminal justice system towards achieving the larger goal of human good. Hence, in my opinion, there is a need for a radical change- a change towards the principle of the ends justify the means. The common argument raised against this is that every citizen has certain rights which are violated when an unlawful search or seizure is done. However firstly, it should be kept in mind that the Fourth Amendment as pointed out by the courts do not proscribe the admissibility of such evidence. Secondly, the criminal justice system is to an extent based on the theory of retribution- an eye for an eye. In the light of this theory, the violation of the rights of the accused in procuring the evidence which point to his culpability is justified. As an expert puts it, by the exclusionary rule “the Supreme Court paints with a Universal Brush when it applies the exclusionary rule.” [37]

As illustrated above, the courts have now realized the flaws of this rule as is evident from its further dilution and applicability in limited cases. When the judge in the earlier cases like Boyd’s case wanted a broad interpretation of the term ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ we see that a century later, the Judges are cautious in applying this rule. Moreover, the concept of justice states that “the habit whereby a person renders to each his due”. [38] If this is the theory of justice then isn’t it true that procuring probative evidence that clearly points the guilt of the accused is only a means to achieve justice. In addition to this, this definition of justice is also in close conformity to the theory of retribution that I spoke of. Viewed from such a perspective, the exclusion of evidence due to a violation of the right of privacy hardly seems to be a ‘wrong’, especially when the statute does not say so. Furthermore how ‘private’ can the accused who has committed a grave crime feel in his own abode? Any reasonable person who has committed a person would be followed by a cloud of guilt, apprehension, anxiety and thus his degree of ‘privacy’, in my opinion, is also questionable. To conclude, I would say that I agree with Eugene Milhizer when he says “courts should suppress truth-affirming evidence only when it is absolutely necessary to achieve some other important, tangible and immediate purpose.” [39]

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