How illegally obtained evidence can be declared ‘poisonous’ to justice


Like every other state, North Carolina has laws that limit what police can do to arrest people and charge them with crimes. These rules, combined with the Bill of Rights and other federal laws, help balance the government’s power and our civil rights, including the right to a fair trial.

Among other things, the law recognizes that admitting evidence into trial that the police obtained through illegal procedures would defeat the purpose of having procedural rules and civil rights in the first place. Thus, we have the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine.

The doctrine explained

This doctrine states that any evidence seized by police illegally cannot be admissible in court. For example, say an officer pulls you over despite lacking a reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime. The officer searches your vehicle and seizes a baggie of marijuana. That marijuana might be inadmissible if you can show that either the traffic stop, the search or both were unlawful and that the drugs were the “fruit” of a “poisonous tree” — i.e., an illegal stop and search.

Exceptions to the rule

Over the years, legislatures and judges have carved out several exceptions to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. These include:

  • Discovery of the evidence was “inevitable” no matter what the police did.
  • The source of the discovery was independent of the misconduct.
  • An attenuation of time and/or space existed between the illegal conduct and the discovery of the evidence.

Still, if you and your defense attorney believe the police used shaky or outright illegal tactics to obtain evidence against you, you should consider challenging the admission of that evidence. If successful, you could greatly weaken the prosecutor’s case or even force them to dismiss the charges. Fighting for our civil rights is every individual’s responsibility.