The Exclusionary Rule of Search and Seizure: An Overview

April 2, 2015

The prohibition against unlawful search and seizure is fundamental to our country’s justice system. Both the U.S. and the Florida Constitutions guarantee freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officers. Sometimes, however, police officers and other officials violate this rule, and sometimes that leads to the discovery of evidence that would not otherwise have been found.

The Rule

To discourage police officers from violating the prohibition against searches and seizures and to protect that right for citizens, courts have instituted the exclusionary rule. It means that if evidence is collected through a law enforcement officer’s unconstitutional conduct, such as an illegal search or seizure, the evidence must be suppressed. This means that the evidence cannot be used against the defendant in court for most purposes. The rule does not apply in civil cases or in grand jury proceedings. Importantly, it does apply in a criminal trial, though there are limited exceptions. The Florida Supreme Court, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, has also extended the rule to probation revocation hearings.

Because of the exclusionary rule, illegally obtained evidence usually may not be used at a criminal trial. If the suppressed evidence is crucial to the case, charges may have to be dropped. For instance, if police officers enter and search a house without a warrant and find illicit drugs inside, they cannot use that evidence at trial, since it was illegally obtained. If the illegal search was the only proof of drug possession they had, the charges would have to be dismissed because of the exclusionary rule.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

When suppressible evidence leads to the discovery of further evidence, that further evidence is generally also inadmissible in court. The further evidence is known as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” For example, if police search a house without a warrant and find an email disclosing the location of some illegal drugs, then go to the location and find the drugs, the discovered drugs are also inadmissible as evidence. This is because the discovery resulted from the email found in the course of the illegal search.

However, if the connection between the illegally discovered evidence and the resulting evidence is sufficiently attenuated, the resulting evidence may nonetheless be admissible. Additionally, if the new evidence would inevitably have been discovered, it will be admissible. For example, if police perform a warrantless search of a house and find an email arranging a drug deal, then stake out the location of the deal, which was scheduled to happen at noon in the police station parking lot, evidence of the deal will likely be admissible. This is because, even if the police had not discovered the email, they would have noticed the drug deal anyway.

Good Faith Exception

There is a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, allowing evidence to be admissible when the search or seizure appears to be lawful, but is not. It often applies when police officers rely on search warrants that appear valid but later turn out to be invalid. It is also frequently use when police officers act in compliance with laws that later change. For example, if officers attach GPS units to cars without warrants, in compliance with existing law, but the court later held that warrants were required, evidence from the GPS devices would likely be admissible.

If you believe that you have been subjected to an illegal search or seizure, an attorney can assist you in defending your constitutional rights and ensuring that no suppressible evidence is used against you. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.