John Wesley Hall

Why does how evidence was obtained matter?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides you with the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. You may not be aware of the fact that this right looks much different now than it did when added over 200 years ago.

It took until 1914 for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that federal prosecutors could not enter incriminating evidence into court against an individual if police failed to obtain it through legal means and in accordance with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. In 1961, the Court expanded its ruling to include state courts. This prohibition against using evidence not properly obtained became known as the Exclusionary Rule. 

How does the exclusionary rule work?

Many police officers do their best to make sure they don't violate your Constitutional rights when gathering evidence that supposedly proves you committed a crime. However, some officers end up gathering evidence without adhering to the law or the Fourth Amendment because they failed to obtain a valid search warrant. In some cases, a search warrant may not be necessary, but those circumstances have limits.

If proof exists that law enforcement officials gathered the supposed evidence illegally, you may ask the court to exclude it from the case. If the court rules that parties did not gather the evidence legally, it may "suppress" the evidence, which means that prosecutors cannot use it in an effort to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and a jury would never see or hear it. This could have a significant impact on your case.

Additional consequences for police and prosecutors

If the court rules that police conducted an illegal search, all of the evidence obtained or derived from that illegal search may never make it into the courtroom as evidence against you. Called the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, this rule extends to evidence gathered outside of that initial search. For example, if a piece of evidence found during the initial, and illegal, search leads to the discovery of another piece of evidence, the judge may not allow the second piece of evidence into court either.

As you can see, the exclusionary rule is a powerful tool if it turns out that one conducted the search in your case illegally. The only way to determine whether the search falls within legal guidelines would be to thoroughly review all of the circumstances involved. Thereafter, you would have to present the appropriate proof to the court. Exploring this possibility will more than likely require some experienced assistance. 

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