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What Does “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Mean?

If you face criminal charges in Tennessee, you may hear people talking about the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, but wonder if it has anything to do with your case. It may or may not depending on the evidence against you and how law enforcement officials obtained that evidence.

As explained by LawTeacher.net, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine has been a fixture of American law for more than 100 years. The U.S. Supreme Court first hinted of it in the 1886 case of Boyd v. United States. It took another 53 years, however, for Justice Felix Frankfurter to coin the phrase in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Nardone v. United States.

What does it mean?

“Fruit of the poisonous tree” actually is a metaphor. Everyone knows that the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. Consequently, “fruit” refers to the evidence that law enforcement officers collect against criminal defendants, and “poisonous tree” refers to the way in which they obtain it. If they do so by means of an unconstitutional search and seizure, that is the “poisonous tree” from which they cannot obtain benefit from the “fruit” they picked.

What this means to you and all other criminal defendants is that if officers became overzealous in their evidence collection methods, the judge will not allow that evidence into court because it is poisonous to you and your constitutionally guaranteed rights.

What does “unreasonable” mean?

There is no overarching definition of “unreasonable.” Rather, what is an unreasonable search and seizure can, and usually does, vary from case to case. If, however, the officers seized something from your house or car without having a warrant to do so, that may be sufficiently poisonous to get the item(s) thrown out of court as evidence against you.

Also, bear in mind that seizure applies to your body as well as to your possessions. If officers arrested you without a warrant, this, too, may be sufficiently poisonous to get anything they found on you or in your home or car after your arrest, even with a warrant, thrown out of court. In other words, if your arrest was unreasonable and therefore illegal, so is anything they found after your arrest.

This is general information only and not intended to provide legal advice.