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What is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine?

Should you face criminal charges in New York, you may wish to familiarize yourself with the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. This long-held legal doctrine could become a major factor as you and your attorney go about defending you.

The U.S. Supreme Court first hinted at what would become known as the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine in the 1886 case of Boyd v. United States. The phrase itself was coined by Justice Felix Frankfurter in Nardone v. United States, a 1939 SCOTUS case.

The phrase “fruit of the poisonous tree” is a two-part metaphor. The word “fruit” stands for the evidence law enforcement officers gather against you after your arrest. The term “poisonous tree” stands for any illegal and unconstitutional methods by which they go about gathering it. Put together, the entire phrase means that if officers engage in unconstitutional methods to gather evidence, the court will not allow them to use this “fruit” against you at trial.

Fourth Amendment guarantees

While the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine did not officially appear until 1939, your rights on which it is based emanate from the your right to remain free of unreasonable searches and seizures by governmental officials as guaranteed to you by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Admittedly, no court or statute has ever precisely defined the meaning of the word “unreasonable” when it comes to searches and seizures. Nevertheless, courts virtually always hold those conducted without a warrant to be unreasonable.

Bottom line, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine means, for you and the criminal charges you face, that should your attorney be able to convince a judge that officers conducted illegal searches and seizures when gathering evidence against you, that evidence will be thrown out of court.

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