Fruit of the poisonous tree

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Fruit of the poisonous tree is a legal metaphor in the United States used to describe evidence that is obtained illegally.[1] The logic of the terminology is that if the source (the "tree") of the evidence or evidence itself is tainted, then anything gained (the "fruit") from it is tainted as well. The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was first described in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920).[2][3][4] The term's first use was by Justice Felix Frankfurter in Nardone v. United States (1939).

Such evidence is not generally admissible in court.[5] For example, if a police officer conducted an unconstitutional (Fourth Amendment) search of a home and obtained a key to a train station locker, and evidence of a crime came from the locker, that evidence would most likely be excluded under the fruit of the poisonous tree legal doctrine. The discovery of a witness is not evidence in itself because the witness is attenuated by separate interviews, in-court testimony and his or her own statements.

The doctrine is an extension of the exclusionary rule, which, subject to some exceptions, prevents evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment from being admitted in a criminal trial. Like the exclusionary rule, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine is intended to deter police from using illegal means to obtain evidence.

The doctrine is subject to four main exceptions. The tainted evidence is admissible if:

  1. it was discovered in part as a result of an independent, untainted source; or
  2. it would inevitably have been discovered despite the tainted source; or
  3. the chain of causation between the illegal action and the tainted evidence is too attenuated; or
  4. the search warrant was not found to be valid based on probable cause, but was executed by government agents in good faith (called the good-faith exception).

This doctrine was also used by the European Court of Human Rights in Gäfgen v. Germany. In certain cases continental European countries have similar laws (e.g. in cases of torture), while the doctrine itself is generally not known. Illegally obtained evidence is used by the courts to ensure that the judgment is factually correct, however the person obtaining the illegal evidence typically faces independent consequences.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dressler, Joshua (2002). Understanding Criminal Procedure (3rd ed.). Newark, NJ: LexisNexis. ISBN 0-8205-5405-7. 
  2. ^ Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920)
  3. ^ "Fruit of a poisonous tree legal definition of Fruit of a poisonous tree. Fruit of a poisonous tree synonyms by the Free Online Law Dictionary". 1959-06-04. Retrieved 2014-03-04. 
  4. ^ See also Bransdorfer, Mark S. (1987). "Miranda Right-to-Counsel Violations and the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine". Indiana Law Journal 62: 1061. ISSN 0019-6665. 
  5. ^ Gaines, Larry; Miller, LeRoy (2006). Criminal Justice In Action: The Core. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN 0-495-00305-0.