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fruit of a poisonous tree

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Fruit of the poisonous tree is a legal doctrine according to which any secondary evidence obtained indirectly through illicit means is inadmissible in court. 

Examples of such sources include evidence gained through eavesdropping, illegal wiretapping, coercive interrogations, unwarranted searches, or improperly conducted arrests. Information obtained from those sources is inadmissible according to the law of exclusion. The fruit of a poisonous tree doctrine is an extension to that law. 

Here's one possible scenario: If an illegally conducted electronic discovery (e-discovery) search yields information about corporate espionage, that information cannot be presented as evidence in court, according to the law of exclusion. If other information learned through the search leads investigators to search a public location, where they uncover evidence of another crime, the doctrine of the poisonous tree disqualifies that evidence for presentation in any legal action. 

Both the law of exclusion and the fruit of a poisonous tree doctrine were created to discourage law enforcement officials from using illegal activities in efforts to obtain evidence. 

This was last updated in February 2015

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And then there was the story of a hacker living in Russia who extorted money from a US firm and was hunted by the FBI. Attempts at cooperation were not successful as the Russian authorities stated, hacking is not illegal in Russia. Later, as the story goes, the FBI was able themselves to access this man's computer in Russia, and found out his real identity. They then tricked him into coming to the US, where he was promptly arrested. At his trial, his attorney made a motion to dismiss the case as the FBI had performed an illegal access or "hacking" of the man's computer. Much to their surprise, the judge dismissed their motion, stating that the FBI's actions were ok, as hacking was not illegal in Russia!
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The exception to "fruit of the poisonous tree" occurs under "inevitable discovery," evidence which might be inadmissible can sometimes become admissible if the judge can prove that, absent finding the inadmissible evidence the police would have continued looking and would have found it anyway, then the judge may admit the evidence anyway,
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I meant to say under "inevitable discovery" the evidence may become admissible if the police prove they would have found it; the judge doesn't prove anything.
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The "fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine" had to be created to give the Constitution some teeth. If you allowed the evidence and presumed police officers would be punished for misconduct, well, that almost never happens. So there was no penalty and every incentive to ignore constitutional protections. By making illegal searches useless, they stop happening. I'm not really sure if I agree with "inevitable discovery" because the police might use it as a figleaf to claim an inevitable discovery and hide the fact that the illegal evidence gave them ideas on other places to look, and that other evidence might not be as inevitably discovered as the police claim it would have been.
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