One of the most admirable aspects of the U. S. criminal justice system is a doctrine commonly called the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” It is an extension of the Exclusionary Rule that bars the government from using most evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution. The Exclusionary Rule is a court-created remedy that evolved throughout history when judges have determined that certain practices are unconstitutional.
As legal pedigrees go, the Exclusionary Rule has a pretty good one. It applies to evidence gained from “unreasonable” searches or seizures — those that violate the Fourth Amendment (Mapp v. Ohio). It also applies to improperly elicited self-incriminatory statements that violate the Fifth Amendment (Miranda v. Arizona), and to evidence gained in situations where the government violates the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel (also Miranda). Interestingly, the rule doesn’t apply to civil cases or deportation hearings.
The so-called fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine comes from the 1939 case, Nardone v. U. S. (1939). Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary provides a concise example: “If a suspect is arrested but is not read the Miranda rights, then tells the police the location of stolen property, and the police then find the stolen property as a result of the interrogation, the stolen property is inadmissible because it was acquired through an unconstitutional interrogation.”
In this telling, the “poisonous tree” is the unconstitutional interrogation and the stolen property is its “fruit.” There are notable exceptions to this rule, but as a general application, the above example is typical.
This doctrine rose to the fore in a recent Arkansas case, Elfido Gutierrez v. Arkansas. Gutierrez was arrested in his Vilonia home by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA was actually on the lookout for Gutierrez’s nephew, Alonzo Gutierrez, for whom they had an arrest warrant.
According to a report by Arkansas News Bureau, Alonzo Gutierrez had been seen outside his uncle’s home. The DEA, led by Agent Jon Vannatta, made entry to the residence, and found that Alonzo Gutierrez was not there. They did, however, find firearms, cocaine and methamphetamine on Elfido Gutierrez.
Gutierrez was charged with possession of cocaine, possession of methamphetamine, simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that Vannatta had no cause to enter his home without a warrant.
Vannatta testified that he saw a broken window on the back of the residence as well as broken glass on the ground. From this he suspected a kidnapping had occurred. The state argued that a warrantless search is permissible when an officer has cause to believe a person may be in imminent danger.
The original trial judge denied Gutierrez’s motion. Gutierrez pled guilty on the condition he be allowed to appeal the denial of his motion, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Arkansas Court of Appeals overturned the conviction on the grounds that the evidence should have been suppressed.
“There was no basis for believing that a kidnapping was under way that morning. This is exactly the type of ‘potential or speculative harm’ that this court has rejected as exceeding the scope of the imminent danger exception,” Judge Robin Wynne wrote in the court’s opinion.
The court also noted that officers conducted surveillance of the residence for over an hour before they entered it; and that Vannatta admitted that he did not want to be, “sitting out there all day waiting to see if anything was going to happen.”
This testimony alone undermines the state’s case based on exigent circumstances (i.e. imminent danger). In short, the state’s case was undone by impatience and haste. As a consequence, someone who may very well deserve to be in prison is not. Herein lies the great strength and sad vulnerability of our system. As the old saying goes, there’s no right way to do a wrong thing.