“Independent Source” Doctrine Allows State to Use Evidence Originally Discovered through an Unlawful Search

Hippomane_mancinella_(fruit).jpgOur criminal justice system generally prohibits the state from using evidence obtained unlawfully in a criminal prosecution. This rule is often known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” meaning that if the underlying search was illegal, any evidence obtained through that search is therefore tainted. Federal courts have identified an exception to this rule, known as the “independent source” doctrine, for evidence discovered through an illegal search, but later obtained through independent, legal means.The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently affirmed a state trial court’s application of the independent source doctrine, finding that it does not conflict with state law. Wehrenberg v. Texas, Nos. PD-1702-12, PD-1703-12, slip op. (Tex. Crim. App., Dec. 11, 2013).

The fruit of the poisonous tree rule derives from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits law enforcement from conducting searches and seizures without probable cause and a warrant. A defendant can bring a motion to suppress evidence obtained in violation of these rights. If a court concludes that an officer or any other person violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, or violated any other federal or state law related to criminal evidence, the court must suppress that evidence. This rule is codified in Article 38.23 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlined the independent source doctrine in Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796 (1984). A defendant moved to suppress evidence discovered in a warrantless search of his apartment during his arrest on drug-related charges. Police received authorization from prosecutors to arrest the defendant, but because the authorization came at about 7:00 p.m., they had to wait until the following day for a search warrant. They arrested the defendant in the lobby of his apartment building and escorted him to his apartment. Inside the apartment, they observed evidence linking the defendant to drug trafficking. Nineteen hours later, they returned with a search warrant and seized the evidence.

The Supreme Court held that the question of whether the officers unlawfully entered the apartment at the time of the arrest was irrelevant, and that the evidence was not fruit of the poisonous tree since a search warrant was already in process and would have yielded the same evidence. It noted that the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine has never held that evidence initially observed because of unlawful police action is automatically inadmissible. Id. at 815.

The facts in Wehrenberg are similar to Segura. Police, after receiving a tip from a confidential informant (CI) about a methamphetamine lab, went to the address provided, entered the residence without a warrant or consent, and conducted a search that turned up evidence of methamphetamine production. Only then did they prepare a search-warrant affidavit, using only information obtained from the CI. A magistrate signed the search warrant ninety minutes later, and the officers returned to the residence and seized the evidence. The Court of Criminal Appeals, in an 8-1 decision, held that the trial court did not violate Art. 38.23 by admitting the evidence because the search warrant was based on information unrelated to the unlawful search.

For more than twenty years, board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of west Texas defendants. He draws on his experience as an FBI agent and a prosecutor to assist clients charged with alleged state and federal offenses related to drugs, white collar crime, and other matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Court Grants, then Stays, Preliminary Injunction in Case Alleging that NSA Metadata Collection Violates Fourth Amendment, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 20, 2013
Police Test New Methods of GPS Tracking, Leaving Questions of How Much Surveillance the Fourth Amendment Allows, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 6, 2013
Marijuana Smell Not Enough to Justify Warrantless Entry into Home, According to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 17, 2013
Photo credit: By Hans Hillewaert (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.