Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Benefits of the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

By Sherri Stewart

Say what? How can a poisonous tree’s fruit be beneficial to any person? It can when it protects a person’s Fourth-Amendment rights. Many people don’t realize that the Bill of Rights protects us from government intrusion. The First Amendment protects our right to speech, religion, and assembly. The Second and Third Amendments prevent government intrusion in our homes through the keeping and bearing of arms. But how can fruit protect us from government intrusion?

The constitution’s Fourth Amendment states, “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.” This amendment protects the person from a police officer’s search of a car, residence, and a person’s body without a search warrant based on probable cause or a person’s consent. If the police violate this amendment, any evidence they collect will be inadmissible in court as “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree.”

In Mapp v. Ohio, the police appeared at Mapp’s door and handed her a warrant to search for evidence of illegal gambling. When she tried to read the warrant, the officer snatched it from her hands and held her against her will while they searched her house. They found no evidence of gambling, but they found pornography and confiscated it. When the case went to trial, all evidence was inadmissible in court because it had been illegally taken. Warrants must be specific about the object searched for, the location of the object, and a specific time period. Anything else found, as was the case in Mapp, is inadmissible in court. The police can also search someone’s residence if they obtain consent from the resident. Of course, a child cannot give consent. 

Are there exceptions? Yes, if the police are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, they can chase them into someone’s house without a warrant. The Exigent circumstances exception is similar to the hot-pursuit exception if time is of the essence. If the police know that the suspect who sells drugs can quickly flush them down the toilet, they can enter the property without a warrant.

Also, there’s the plain-view exception. Let’s say the police stop a driver for speeding and they see drugs in the back seat. They don’t need a warrant to arrest the driver because cars are inherently mobile, so it would be impractical to have to get a search warrant. In fact, the standard for stopping a vehicle is less than probable cause, which is required for a search of a house. The officer only has to have a reasonable suspicion to stop a driver. However, he would need a search warrant based on probable cause to search the unseen areas of the car, such as the trunk or the glove compartment. 

Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1, is the seminal case for stop and frisk cases. In this one, a police officer watched three men case a store. Although he didn’t have time to get a search warrant, he stopped the men, demanded that they stand against the wall, and he frisked Mr. Terry by patting him down. As he did, he found a gun in Terry’s pocket. After patting down the other two men, he found another gun. The question for the court was whether the police officer violated the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the court. “We deal here with an entire rubric of police conduct—necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat—which historically has not been, and as a practical matter could not be, subjected to the warrant procedure. Instead, the conduct involved in this case must be tested against the fourth amendment's general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The chief justice lowered the standard to reasonable searches, and from then on any kind of stop and frisk has been called a Terry Search.

Your turn: A police officer raced to catch up with a thief who had pushed a woman to the ground and ran off with her purse. The thief veered off the road and ran onto the porch of a house a block ahead. By the time the officer arrived, the door was wide open. He ran into the house and into the kitchen where a bag of white powder sat on the counter, but the thief had left through the back door, so the officer continued his pursuit of the thief. If the house that the thief went through was a stranger’s house, can the police arrest the owner of the house for the drugs in the kitchen?

Selah Award finalist Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she still works daily on her French, although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A recent widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.

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  1. Thank you for the post today. I would guess that the police couldn't search the house that the thief ran through without a warrant. I'm assuming that the thief threw the bag onto the counter to get rid of it on his person.

  2. This was a real case, and the bag belonged to the owner of the house, not to the thief. If I remember right, they did charge the owner of the house with drug possession. I assume since the police were in the house legally in hot pursuit of the thief, they may have convicted the home owner.