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What does “fruit of the poisonous tree” mean?

| Oct 29, 2018 | Criminal Defense |

If you face any kind of Wisconsin criminal charges, you should familiarize yourself with the fruit of the poisonous tree legal doctrine. Why? Because it could help you in your criminal defense.

As Law Teacher explains, “fruit of the poisonous tree” actually is a metaphor. It stands for the proposition that if law enforcement officers use unconstitutional methods to obtain evidence against you, that evidence cannot be used against you in a court of law. In other words, “fruit” stands for the evidence itself; “poisonous tree” stands for the methods by which officers gathered it.

The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine goes back to the very beginnings of U.S. history. The U.S. Supreme Court first gave a hint of it in Boyd v. United States, an 1886 case. Justice Felix Frankfurter actually coined the term in the 1939 case of Nardone v. United States.

Constitutional underpinnings

Regardless of the fact that this doctrine did not have an actual name until the 20th century, its roots lie in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Per that Amendment, you have the right to remain free of governmental unreasonable searches and seizures. Unfortunately, neither the Constitution nor American case law precisely defines the word “unreasonable,” but courts have long held that warrantless searches and/or seizures are unreasonable except in a very few and narrowly defined circumstances.

Consequently, if the judge finds that law enforcement officers searched your home, car, etc. and/or arrested you without a warrant, the judge likely will throw out any evidence flowing from those unconstitutional activities. This is general educational information only and not intended to provide legal advice.