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Understanding the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine

When you face criminal charges in Colorado, you need all the help you can get. After all, a conviction could deprive you of your freedom for a substantial period of time.

In addition to retaining an experienced defense attorney, another thing that could really help you defend against the charges you face is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. If you have never heard of this legal construct, you should familiarize yourself with it because it could make or break the case against you.

"Fruit of the poisonous tree" is a metaphor, meaning that its actual words stand for other things. “Fruit” stands for the evidence against you. “Poisonous tree” stands for the unconstitutional methods by which law enforcement officers gather that evidence. Therefore, what the metaphor means is that when officers illegally or unconstitutionally gather evidence against you, they cannot use that evidence against you in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court first hinted at the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine back in 1886, but not until nearly 50 years later did Justice Felix Frankfurter actually coin the phrase in the 1939 case of Nardone v. United States. Since then, prosecutors across the country have dropped the charges against numerous criminal defendants because judges threw poisonous tree evidence out of court.

Fourth Amendment underpinnings

The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine flows from your Fourth Amendment right to remain free of unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by governmental officials. Keep in mind that no judge or court has ever come up with a one-size-fits-all definition of “unreasonable.” Consequently, what constitutes an unreasonable search and/or seizure must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, except in a very few and very limited circumstances, warrantless searches almost invariably fall into that category.

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