What is the Exclusionary Rule? What is “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”?

Under the Fourth Amendment Evidence will not be admissible in trial if Law Enforcement conducts a search, even with a warrant, if there is not probable cause for the issuance of the warrant.

In 1961 The Supreme Court of the United States, (SCOTUS), applied the exclusionary rule to state court proceedings in Mapp v. Ohio. If the police seize evidence illegally, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution has been violated.  Under the exclusionary rule, the State could not use evidence that the police seized illegally.   This ruling sent a strong message to Law Enforcement. If you violate the Constitution the critical evidence will not be admitted. The Court set out to modify police conduct that is Constitutionally repugnant. Of tremendous importance, the Court ruled that pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause contained in the Fourteenth Amendment, the exclusionary rule was applicable to State Court proceedings. Thus, the exclusionary rule became the law of the land. I consider this to be the legacy of the Warren Court. Others have characterized the ruling as judicial activism, however I believe it gave some real, figuratively speaking, teeth to the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment provides: “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, describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

To ensure that a search complies with the Fourth Amendment, police need a warrant, supported by an affidavit, in which the police set forth facts, under oath, subject to penalty of perjury, that demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that “fruits, evidence, or instrumentalities” of a crime are located in a particularly named place, e.g., home, vehicle or office.  A search warrant is a constitutional safeguard because it requires that a neutral and detached magistrate evaluate the facts allegedly supporting the warrant before he or she authorizes it.

Without the search warrant the seized evidence may be considered to be the “fruit of the poisonous tree”. In the ensuing years the Court developed various “exceptions” to the warrant requirement.


In 1984, the Supreme Court took up   United States v. Leon, which held that, if the police obtain a warrant, as opposed to making a warrantless entry, they should not be penalized. Thus Leon created a “good faith” exception, which permits evidence to be admitted even if obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

It is presumed that evidence confiscated based on a warrant was obtained in “good faith,” provided the police acted in the good faith belief that they complied with the Fourth Amendment.  The holding has generated a change in law enforcement inasmuch as the government almost always wins if the evidence was seized based on a warrant. Warrants were obtained as a matter of course, absent exigent circumstances and other judicially recognized exceptions.

However, oftentimes the factual underpinning of the warrant was lacking. The Good Faith exception began to be anything but good faith.

One such case, Agurs v. State , decided on May 19, 2010, by the Court of Appeals of Maryland addressed this issue.  The Court held that the police did not qualify for the good faith exception, even though they first obtained a search warrant, because they had no probable cause – only mere speculation — to believe drugs were in the defendant’s house.  The Court held:  (1) Evidence of drugs was so flimsy that no reasonably trained police officer could have believed that the information in the warrant application and affidavit constituted probable cause to believe drugs were on the premises.  (2) Because there was absolutely no probable cause, the police did not satisfy the “good faith” exception.  (3) Because the police did not qualify for the “good faith” exception, the exclusionary rule applies, and the evidence is inadmissible. The handgun, drugs, $30,000.00 were fruit of the poisonous tree and inadmissible evidence.

If the State elects to retry this case it may not use the drugs, handgun, or $30,000 obtained from the house as evidence against the Defendant.  This will makes a re-trial very difficult to prosecute. Defendant walks.

Skilled Defense Attorney’s now cite this as one of the seminal cases when challenging a Search Warrant in the Motion to Suppress Evidence proceeding of a Criminal trial.


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