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Understanding the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine

In all likelihood, you have never heard about the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Nevertheless, if you face criminal charges in Colorado, this long established legal doctrine could spell the difference between your conviction and your acquittal.

The U.S. Supreme Court first hinted at the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine in 1886 when it decided the case of Boyd v. United States. The doctrine did not receive its official name, however, until Justice Felix Frankfurter coined the phrase in his opinion in Nardone v. United States in 1939.

Explaining the metaphor

As you might expect, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine has nothing to do with either trees or fruit. Rather, it has to do with the evidence that law enforcement officials gather against you and the ways in which they gather it. Should they become overzealous in their collection methods, their unconstitutional actions create a “poisonous tree.” Any “fruit,” i.e., evidence, they collect in this manner must be thrown out of court. The prosecutor cannot use it against you in his or her attempt to convict you of the crime(s) you allegedly committed.

Fourth Amendment violations

Per the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you and all other people in this country have the right to remain free of unreasonable searches and seizures on the part of governmental officials, including law enforcement officers. Keep in mind that neither the Amendment nor any statute or case law precisely defines what constitutes an “unreasonable” search and/or seizure. Consequently, judges must determine this on a case-by-case basis.

At the very least, however, courts almost invariably consider a search and/or seizure done without a proper warrant to be unconstitutional and therefore a “poisonous tree” situation. Thus, if the officers involved in your case conduct a warrantless search in their attempt to gather evidence against you, your attorney likely can get this evidence thrown out of court.

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