The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights, were designed to protect citizens against abusive state power. These protections include preventing the government from entering and seizing property without just cause or stripping citizens of their rights without due process (Oaks 665). These protections are encoded within the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Enforcing these rights, paradoxically, is also the responsibility of the government. Fortunately, the Constitutional framers created three independent branches of the government, thereby providing a mechanism through which one branch could limit the power and reach of the other two branches. When it comes to the protections encoded in the Bill of Rights, the judicial branch has taken the leading role in checking the powers of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, as well as state governments.
This essay will examine one of the mechanisms through which the U.S. Supreme Court has tried to protect individual rights, by preventing the introduction of evidence into court that could only have been obtained by violating those rights. This mechanism is called the 'exclusionary rule', otherwise known as the 'fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.' This essay is divided into two parts, with the first reviewing the long history of the exclusionary rule and the second examining whether it should be discarded in lieu of other mechanisms.
History of the Exclusionary Rule
The first whiff of the exclusionary rule emerged in 1886, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that a U.S. attorney had violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights when he ordered him to turn over private documents that could prove the defendant violated custom's laws (Boyd v. United States 1886, 116). The Court equated the compulsory order to produce documents equivalent to entering the defendant's home to seize the documents and was therefore unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. Since these documents could be potentially incriminating, the Court held that forcing the defendant to produce them violated Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.
The federal prosecutor in Boyd had been acting in accordance with a recent law that gave the government the right to compel suspected violators to produce private and incriminating documents (Boyd v. United States 1886, 116). This statute also equated failure to produce the papers with guilt. For these reasons, the Court held that the law was unconstitutional. The Court mentioned that if the statute had instead limited its scope to the goods in question, then the Court would have likely sided with the government. It is the private nature of the papers and books that rendered them protected by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
The Boyd prohibition against admitting evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment was partially reversed in Adams v. New York (1904, 192). The Supreme Court upheld the admissibility of gambling receipts seized during a search authorized by a legal warrant. The main point under contention before the Court was whether personal papers also seized during the search could be used in court to identify handwriting on the gambling receipts, thereby linking the defendant to illegal gambling activity. The Court held that doing so did not constitute a breach of Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, because the content of the personal papers were irrelevant to the prosecution's case.
The next major challenge to the warrantless seizure of evidence occurred in 1914, in Weeks v. United States (1914, 232). Police officers searched the defendant's home without an arrest or search warrant and seized papers and other property used to convict the defendant of illegal gambling. The lower court held that the search and seizure was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed; however, the lower court and the prosecuting attorney argued that once the papers were in the prosecutor's possession, the illegal nature of the search and seizure were irrelevant to admissibility in a criminal case. Citing Adams, the government also claimed that the competency of the evidence to convict superseded Fourth Amendment protections. The Supreme Court held that both the police officers and the lower court violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment protections and reversed the conviction. The Weeks decision centered on the absence of an arrest or search warrant when the house was searched, thereby discriminating it from the Court's decision in Adams. In other words, the government's need to control crime does not supersede Fourth Amendment protections.
The Supreme Court justices hearing arguments in the Weeks case limited their enforcement of the exclusionary rule to federal jurisdictions. This changed in Mapp v. Ohio (1961, 367), when the court extended Fourth Amendment protections via the exclusionary role to state courts. In the aftermath of a bombing, several police officers demanded entrance into a building housing the accused. When entry was refused, the officers maintained a presence around the perimeter of the building. Several hours later, more officers arrived and forcibly entered the building without an arrest or search warrant. During the subsequent search of the dwelling, pornographic materials were seized and used to convict the accused for a crime unrelated to the bombing.
When the conviction was appealed before the Ohio Supreme Court, the justices offered the opinion that it could be argued that the manner in which the search and seizure was conducted is offensive to a sense of justice (Mapp v. Ohio 1961, 367). However, the Ohio attorneys in Mapp argued that under Wolf v. Colorado (1949) state courts can admit illegally seized evidence in criminal proceedings. With respect to this argument, Mapp partially reversed Wolf, thereby imposing Fourth Amendment protections on state courts. The Court then expounded at length on its Weeks ruling to emphasize its ruling that any evidence seized without the authority of a warrant cannot be admitted as evidence during criminal proceedings.
The Court in Mapp then began to dismantle all the tactics police officers had been using to get around the Weeks rule (exclusionary rule), an action the justices justified by the 'reasonableness' clause contained within in the Fourth Amendment (Mapp v. Ohio 1961, 367). For example, admitting evidence illegally obtained by state law enforcement officers into federal criminal trials, and vice versa, violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In summary, the Court stated that "… all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution are, by that same authority, inadmissible in a state court." (367, end of Section III).
The Supreme Court's ruling in Mapp has been interpreted as a Constitutional mandate to prevent any attempt by the state to weaken or circumvent Fourth Amendment protections (Srinivas 180). This sentiment is clearly stated in the quote above; however, during the decades since the Mapp decision the exclusionary rule has been weakened by a number of Court rulings. As Srinivas notes, rather than a Constitutional mandate, the Supreme Court has shifted to a more literal position by declaring that the Fourth Amendment provides no guidance on enforcement. This sentiment was expressed by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. In the first line of the majority opinion in Davis v. United States (2011, 564). This contemporary approach to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has resulted in an increasingly complex formula for deciding when and if a police officer can conduct a search.
A good example of how complex the exclusionary rule has become is the ruling in Davis (2011, 1-5). The issue brought before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether a police officer can search a car incident to an arrest and under what circumstances. While writing the majority opinion in Davis, Justice Alito reviewed a series of decisions which attempted to give officers some leeway in searching a vehicle coincident to an arrest. One of the first examples he gave was Chimel v. California (1969), which allowed police officers to search vehicles if there was a danger the arrestee could attempt to destroy evidence. This was affirmed in New York v. Belton (1981), when a police officer arrested four individuals and lined them up next to the car, un-handcuffed, and discovered cocaine in a jacket laying on one of the car seats that lead to the owner's conviction.
What seemed like a clear cut 'Belton' rule for determining whether a warrantless search of an automobile was legal or not, has instead led to different interpretations by the lower courts (Davis v. United States 2011, 2-4). Justice Alito laid out this history when discussing Thornton v. United States (2004), in which a conviction was upheld even though the police had already subdued the occupant of the vehicle. In Arizona v. Gant (2009), four Supreme Court justices agreed with the Arizona Supreme Court's ruling that a search cannot be conducted if the arrestee has been subdued by the police. In Justice Alito's view, this opinion implied that if an arrestee has no opportunity to destroy evidence located in the vehicle, then a warrantless search is unconstitutional.
The Court's majority opinion in Gant favored applying the Belton rule, but…