Alabama Drug Crime Defense: Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

While those arrested for drug crimes in Birmingham must understand the severity of the situation at hand, it's also imperative to know there are options, no matter how much evidence seems to be tipped in the prosecution's favor.

Consider the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. While the term conjures up Biblical images of Adam and Eve, the modern day implications of this common law principle can have a profound impact on pending drug cases.

Basically, the principle holds that if investigators fail to conduct their searches or seizures according to law, whatever evidence they uncover from those actions can't be used against you in court.

A good example of this was recently played out before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Gentile. This was a case involving stolen property, but it's easily applicable to those facing drug crimes because it deals with the same issues of reasonable suspicion, what constitutes a proper search and motions to suppress.

Court records indicate that a week before the defendant was arrested, he came into contact with a state trooper in the course of an unrelated investigation. During that encounter, the trooper observed the defendant's address on his identification card. He would later find that there were two valid warrants out of the defendant's arrest.

The following week, after confirming the address on the identification card, the trooper was assisted by two area police officers in going to the defendant's apartment around 9:30 a.m. They were greeted at the door by a teenage girl and soon after by the girl's mother. Both females told the officers the suspect was not at the residence.

The officers say they heard movement in a back bedroom, though they had no indication of who was there.

At that point, the officers reportedly pushed past the adult female and into a back bedroom, where he found the defendant. They also found numerous firearms that were reportedly traced back to a recent burglary.

As the officers began rifling through the defendant's bedroom, the defendant began screaming that the officers were conducting an illegal search of his bedroom.

The defendant waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak to the officers, conceding that he knew the guns were stolen and he knew who had committed the burglary, but he did not want to say who carried out the theft.

He later consented to a full search of his home, where more stolen firearms were uncovered.

A grand jury indicted him on five counts of receiving stolen property. He attempted to suppress evidence of the guns, arguing they had been obtained via illegal search. However, the district court declined to grant this motion and the defendant was convicted on two counts of receiving stolen property.

He later appealed, with the state supreme court weighing whether the denial of his motion to suppress was improper.

According to state law in Massachusetts, the officer executing an arrest warrant has to prove that in entering a home, he or she had reasonable suspicion that the person being sought was inside the residence at that time. It goes beyond simply knowing the person lives there. The officer needs to be able to point to some articulable evidence that the person who is named in the warrant was indeed present at the address at the time the warrant was executed.

In this case, the officers hadn't conducted any surveillance on the property to determine the suspect was there. There was no third party informing the officials that the defendant was there. There was also no motor vehicle parked outside belonging to the suspect indicating that he was inside.

Even absent all of this, had the officers chose to execute the warrant in the early morning hours, this alone might have been enough to satisfy reasonable suspicion that the suspect was in the residence.

Although the officer correctly ascertained that the woman at the door was lying in telling him the defendant wasn't there, the court noted that: “Many studies have determined that law enforcement officers are more confident in their ability to ascertain whether someone is lying than is warranted by empirical evidence.”

In other words, a hunch alone isn't enough.

This search was based on a hunch. The court found that as a result, everything uncovered thereafter – including evidence of the stolen firearms – should have been suppressed by the lower court.

Even though the defendant had later consented to a full search of his home, the court noted that was only after the officers had entered his home illegally in the first place. The appellate panel found it unlikely the defendant would have later consented to the search if officers weren't already armed with the information they'd obtained from the earlier entry.

The court decided to vacate the convictions and remand the case back to the lower court for further consideration.

The bottom line is that the sanctity of the home is considered of the utmost value, and protecting it is what the Fourth Amendment is all about. So no matter what officers found in your home, if a proper search wasn't conducted, none of it can be used against you in court.

If you have been arrested for a drug crime in Birmingham, contact Drug Crime Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.