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What does “fruit of the poisonous tree” mean?

If you are an Ohio resident facing criminal charges, your life likely is topsy-turvy right now. You worry that a conviction could send you to prison for a substantial period of time, while ruining your family life and your reputation in your community.

One of the things you may not be aware of, and which could greatly enhance your defense, is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. This doctrine encompasses the long-held American legal tradition that law enforcement officials and prosecutors cannot benefit from evidence that they unconstitutionally search for and seize.

The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine dates back to the 1886 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boyd v. United States. That case, however, only hinted at the doctrine to which Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter attached its name 53 years later in the case of Nardone v. United States.

What the words mean

“Fruit of the poisonous tree” is a metaphor. “Fruit” refers to the evidence that law enforcement officers gather against a criminal defendant. “Poisonous tree” refers to any unconstitutional methods by which they gather it. For example, if they obtain the evidence through an unreasonable search and seizure, this is the poisonous tree that results in the judge throwing their fruit, i.e., their evidence, out of court. It cannot be used against the defendant.

Fourth Amendment guarantees

As old as it is, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine flows from your even older constitutional right to remain free of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. Since “unreasonable” has no all-encompassing definition, judges must determine what constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, if officers conduct a search without a valid search warrant authorizing them to do so, such a search definitely is unreasonable.

It will likely surprise you to learn that the word “seizure” applies not only to your possessions, but also to your person. Consequently, in all but the most unusual of circumstances, if officers arrest you without a valid arrest warrant, a judge likely will consider this a false arrest and dismiss the charges against you because such a seizure is unreasonable.

The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine has served criminal defendants well for over a century. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your arrest and the alleged evidence against you, it may serve you well, too.

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