Exclusionary Rule

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One of the cornerstones of US constitutional protections is the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule states that evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search or seizure is not admissible against the victim of the illegal search in a criminal proceeding. The rationale behind this rule is that if the government cannot use the evidence in a criminal trial, it will be less likely to conduct illegal search and seizures in the future.

The exclusionary rule was applied in Federal Courts in Weeks. v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914). The principal was later incorporated against the states in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961). This rule applies regardless of whether the violation is conducted by a state or federal official and regardless of whether the criminal prosecution is brought in a state or federal court.

While many other countries have some version of the exclusionary rule, the United States is unique that it is the only country in which the exclusionary rule is mandatory.

Example: Baltimore Police break into defendants home without a warrant, finding a small amount of marijuana in the defendant's sock drawer. The evidence will be inadmissible because the evidence was found pursuant to an illegal search in violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment Rights.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Under the doctrine of the fruit of the poisonous tree, any evidence obtained as a result of illegally obtained evidence must also be excluded from evidence. However, in Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963)the U.S. Supreme Court refused to "hold that all evidence is 'fruit of the poisonous tree' simply because it would not have come to light but for the illegal actions of the police." The question, said the court, is "whether, granting establishment of the primarily illegality, the evidence to which the instant objection is made has been come at by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint." Later courts have recharacterized the test as "attenuation" not "taint".


The United States Supreme Court has slowly been eroding several cornerstones of the exclusionary rule and many academics now consider the rule to be in danger. The following exceptions to the rule generally apply:

  • Other Uses - Evidence which would otherwise be inadmissible at trial may be used for other purposes such as grant jury proceedings, bail hearings and other preliminary matters as well as sentencing and parole hearings.
  • Civil Suits - Generally, the exclusionary rule only applies in criminal proceedings. Therefore, the evidence may be admissible in a civil suit against the defendant for damages.
  • Independent Source - The exclusionary rule would not apply if the government learned of the same information through an independent source.
  • Inevitable Discovery - A variant of the "indepenent source" exception, a court may hold that the exclusionary rule does not apply if the evidence would have been discovered regardless of the error.
  • Knock and Announce - In Hudson v. Michigan (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that a violation of the knock and announce rule does not require the exclusion of any evidence obtained pursuant to the search. The court concluded that the causal connection was remote and suppression would not serve the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee. After this case was decided, many academics warned that the Supreme Court would soon overrule the exclusionary rule, or replace it with a social costs balancing test.