A fundamental doctrine of American law is the right of an individual to live without fear of arbitrary arrest or the confiscation of his or her private property for use as evidence in a criminal court case. This doctrine, aka the “Search and Seizure Law,” was enacted into law as the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Since the early 1960s, the 4th Amendment guarantees of a citizen’s right to “…

[security] in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” has been vigorously supported in the courts. A key method in support of this section of the law is the Exclusionary Rule, which allows for any evidence obtained during an illegal search to be excluded (“thrown out”) from consideration and thus made unusable in support of a criminal charge and/or conviction.

Although the Exclusionary Rule originally applied only in the federal courts, all states now have their own version of this rule.

How the Exclusionary Rule Works
To obtain a search warrant, a law enforcement officer must appear before a judge or some other official and state why a search warrant is needed. The “why” of a warrant is known as probable cause and is a description of the alleged crime and, most importantly, why an officer suspects an individual may have broken the law. A second requirement of a valid search warrant is the “what,” which specifies any physical objects to be seized that will later be used as evidence in a criminal trial. The Exclusionary Rule “kicks in” if a warrant is later held to be invalid because of issues related to its “constitutionality” or conformance with the principles set forth in the Bill of Rights.

If a warrant is deemed to be improperly obtained, improperly executed, or held invalid for any reason, any evidence obtained under the authority of the warrant is “suppressed” or excluded from any evidence to be presented in court. Also known as the “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree Doctrine,” the Exclusionary Rule protects the privacy rights of the citizen by eliminating the results of an illegal search from a body of evidence that could be used against the citizen in court.

Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule
In the past, the courts have struggled with the problem of what to do when evidence that was improperly obtained that clearly pointed to the defendant’s guilt. Over time, federal and state courts have developed a series of arguments known as exceptions to the exclusionary rule which may be invoked to argue for the admissibility of evidence that would otherwise be excluded at trial.

  • Good Faith Exception

There have been many cases where the police were provided with a defective (invalid) search warrant but the fact that the warrant was invalid was not known to the police. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence obtained with a defective search warrant may be admissible under certain conditions. Under this Good Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule, evidence that would otherwise be excluded at trial can be presented if it can be shown that a police officer acted:

  • with no prior knowledge that the warrant was defective and
  • the officer’s conduct during the search was otherwise consistent with established guidelines regarding a search.

If it can be shown that the above conditions were satisfied, the evidence uncovered during the search may be admissible in court.

  • Inevitable Discovery Doctrine

The Inevitable Discovery Doctrine allows evidence obtained in what would otherwise be a clear violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights to be admissible in court if it can be demonstrated that a normal police investigation would have inevitably led to the discovery of the evidence in question. After the Good Faith Exception, Inevitable Discovery is probably the most common argument used by prosecutors against a suppression of evidence motion.

  • Attenuation Rule

Evidence obtained through government misconduct may be admissible if the logical connection between government misconduct and the evidence is “weak.”

  • Independent Source Exception

Evidence obtained by government misconduct (defective search warrant) may be admissible if it can be shown that the evidence was obtained independent of that misconduct.

The Exclusionary Rule is an important control over potential abuse of the search and seizure provisions of the 4th Amendment. Since such exclusionary arguments can be complex, they are best discussed with an experienced criminal defense attorney and in the context of the entire body of evidence.