One key aspect of the American legal system is the prohibition against warrantless searches of your home. As you may know, police officers cannot search your home without first obtaining a search warrant. This embodies the English common law notion and societal view that your home is a special place—your castle—and should only be subject to search under a high legal standard. But what happens if a police officer does not first obtain a search warrant? Or searches the wrong house? The general rule is that any evidence of criminal activity obtained by the illegal search is “fruit of the poisonous tree”1 and cannot be used against the individual who was subject to the illegal search.2 However, American courts have long struggled with how far the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine extends. To explain, Courts have grappled with the question of whether all evidence obtained after the illegal search is prohibited from being used or whether evidence obtained after an adequate amount of time passes from the illegal search is admissible. The Indiana Supreme Court just addressed this question and adopted the “attenuation doctrine” and a key test with it to balance privacy against policing duties that is discussed in this blog post.
Federal law has already adopted the “attenuation doctrine” as common sense limit to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. In short, the attenuation doctrine essentially considers the totality of the circumstances surrounding the illegal search and the discovered evidence and what occurs later to decide if evidence can be used for a criminal case. While the Federal courts use the attenuation doctrine, Indiana has never explicitly acknowledged the attenuation doctrine until the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent decision in Wright v. State.3 In Wright, the Indiana Supreme Court had to decide whether an illegal search, which resulted in a subsequent admission by the Defendant of child molestation, was “fruit of the poisonous tree”, given when the admission occurred relative to the illegal search; this admission was several days later.
Specifically, Mr. Wright was living with a family in a house which was divided into two separate apartments, with the upstairs being designated at 220 ½ and the downstairs being designated as 220. The FBI, with the help of local law enforcement, obtained a warrant to search the unit (home) known as 220 ½ based on a child pornography investigation. Upon arrival, the federal agents quickly realized they had made a mistake in obtaining a warrant only for the unit designated 220 ½. Instead of obtaining a new search warrant or having the individuals in possession of this homeplace sign a consent form for the search, the federal agents obtained verbal permission from all residents in the home to search their computers. Two days later, the federal agents returned and gave all the residents their computers back, except for Wright’s computer. When he inquired about his computer, the federal agent asked to speak with him in private. During this conversation, the agent indicated that they would need to speak with the children living in the building. In response, the Defendant openly admitted that he sexually molested one of the children in the building. After this admission, the agent stopped speaking with Defendant and called local authorities. Local authorities proceeded to Mirandize (read him his rights, including his right to remain silent) Defendant before taking an official statement regarding the molestation. Wright confessed.
Wright’s criminal defense attorney moved the trial court to suppress the confession and exclude the evidence of child pornography found on Wright’s computer, as this was “fruit of the poisonous tree”. The trial court found the search was an illegal search and it was suppressed. However, the trial court found Wright’s admission to child molestation was not illegal and admissible evidence. As such, with this confession, Wright was convicted of child molestation. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, holding all the evidence, including Wright’s admission days later, was inadmissible to be used against Wright because it all resulted from the initial illegal search, thereby making the confession “fruit of the poisonous tree.” In reversing the Court of Appeals decision, the Indiana Supreme Court adopted the attenuation doctrine.
In this key case, the Supreme Court laid out a three-factor test for trial courts to use when applying the attenuation doctrine in considering suppressing subsequently-obtained evidence from a search as “fruit of the poisonous tree”. The Court made clear that this three-factor test is not the exclusive method of analysis but is simply a starting point for trial courts. The three-factor test set out in Wright is as follows:
- The timeline – particularly, the time elapsed between the illegality and the acquisition of evidence;
- The intervening circumstances – what, if any, intervening circumstances occurred in that time; and
- The police misconduct.
With this test, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the attenuation doctrine made Wright’s admission of child molestation admissible in court, thereby upholding Wright’s conviction. The Court believed that sufficient time had passed in between the illegal search (several days before the admission) and Wright’s admission to alleviate any concerns of police coercion. The Court also noted that Wright was not asked whether he molested any of the children in the home, but he openly admitted to it after the agent stated that they would have to conduct an interview with the children. Lastly, the Court did not believe the police’s misconduct was flagrant. This test thus keeps police from making illegal searches and seizures to obtain criminal convictions—as the evidence is suppressed under the “fruit of the poisonous tree”—but does not allow someone to avoid penal consequences where this policy of protecting your home and privacy is not served by suppression because of the time that has passed since the illegal search.
Knowing the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. Does this test strike the right balance between your privacy in your home from unlawful police searches and protecting the public? You decide. This blog post on this key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. Having criminal defense counsel current on the latest developments in law provides you with the best criminal defense and appeal. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.
- This is the illegal search evidence obtained (the evidence is the fruit hanging on the figurative “tree”, which is the illegal search).
- This is not black-and-white rule, but simply a general rule. Be aware that there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement.
- David Wright v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00166, (Ind. 2018).