Suppression of Evidence Laws

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 What Is Suppression of Evidence?

Suppression of evidence is a legal term that refers to a pretrial proceeding that occurs in a criminal case where a decision is made as to whether or not certain evidence may be introduced and used in a criminal trial. In other words, suppression of evidence occurs in the pretrial phase of the criminal procedure process. It is important to note that suppression of evidence may either be lawful or unlawful.

Examples of lawful suppression of evidence include when a judge rejects evidence in court due to a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights, or as a result of a pretrial motion made by the defendant or their attorney. For example, criminal evidence that was seized following an unlawful arrest may be suppressed before a criminal trial.

An unlawful suppression of evidence occurs when the criminal prosecutor intentionally hides or withholds evidence from the defendant. Importantly, there is a federal rule, known as the “Brady Rule” which mandates that prosecutors must disclose any and all material evidence possessed by the government to the defendant.

As such, if prosecutors fail to properly disclose evidence, that evidence cannot then be used at trial. In other words, the evidence will be suppressed. There are also other grounds for suppression of evidence, such as an unlawful violation of a defendant’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights.

What Happens to Evidence Obtained by an Illegal Search?

As mentioned above, any evidence that is obtained through an illegal search cannot be used at a criminal trial. The reason for this is because illegal searches are a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protects individuals from unauthorized searches, coerced confessions, or an invasion of their privacy rights.

As such, evidence will be suppressed when law enforcement violates a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. This is known as the “exclusionary rule.” In general, it is necessary for the defendant to timely make a motion to suppress evidence.

For example, in a criminal case where there was an illegal search of the car, evidence found in the car search may be suppressed prior to the criminal trial. In such a case, the defendant would file a motion to suppress to have any evidence gathered from the illegal search excluded.

Evidence may be used and generally not suppressed when a proper warrant is executed that is based on probable cause to conduct a search or if a defendant fails to make a timely motion to suppress to keep the evidence from being admitted at trial.

If I Get the Evidence Suppressed, Does That Mean the Case Is Over?

In short, it depends. Having one piece of evidence suppressed does not always result in a criminal case being dismissed. This is because the prosecution may have other evidence which they may use to prove that the defendant committed the crime they are being accused of beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is important to note that evidence that is suppressed may still be used in criminal sentencing or in a civil case against the defendant. Additionally, evidence that is suppressed in a criminal proceeding may also be used in a deportation case.

What Is a Motion to Suppress?

A motion to suppress is a pretrial motion filed by a criminal defendant where the defendant makes a legal request to exclude specific evidence from being used during the criminal trial phase. A motion to suppress will request evidence be excluded based on a violation of constitutional rights, state constitutional rights, or a specific criminal statute that allows evidence to be excluded.

Importantly, a motion to suppress is typically filed well in advance of a criminal trial. Then, the judge will review the motion to determine whether or not the motion should be granted and the evidence should be excluded. After evidence is excluded, the judge and prosecutor will then review the criminal case to determine if the case should proceed or be dismissed.

For example, if law enforcement violates a person’s Fifth Amendment rights by failing to read them their Miranda Rights, then a defendant may file a motion to suppress a confession that was unlawfully obtained by law enforcement.

Motion to Suppress Exceptions

It is important to note that there are many exceptions to the exclusionary rule or that may result in a motion to suppress evidence being denied. Examples of common exceptions to the exclusionary rule include:

  • Good Faith: If a law enforcement officer acts in good faith based on a valid search warrant, then evidence obtained during a search may still be admissible, even if the warrant is later found to be invalid or defective in some way;
  • Independent Source Doctrine: If criminal evidence is discovered through an independent and lawful source, then the evidence may be admissible even if it was initially obtained unlawfully;
  • Inevitable Discovery Doctrine: Evidence that would have been inevitably discovered through legal means may still be admitted;
  • Attenuation Doctrine: The attenuation doctrine applies when the connection between the unlawful conduct, such as an illegal arrest, and the evidence becomes broken; and/or
  • Evidence Admissible for Impeachment: Once again, even if evidence was obtained unlawfully, evidence may still be used for the purposes of impeaching a witness during the cross-examination.

What Is the Exclusionary Rule?

Once again, the Exclusionary Rule comes into play when criminal evidence is obtained in violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. An unlawful search and seizure would violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

As such, an officer must have a valid search warrant and follow proper procedures for a piece of evidence to be admissible at trial. Violations by law enforcement may trigger the Exclusionary Rule.

Why Would Evidence Be Suppressed in Court?

Once again, there are numerous reasons that evidence may be suppressed in court. For instance, if the “chain of custody” is broken, such as there being improper documentation or handling of evidence, then the evidence may be suppressed through a pretrial motion to suppress by the defendant due to the lack of evidence credibility.

Judges will typically grant a motion to suppress in order to ensure a fair trial by excluding evidence obtained unlawfully or in violation of a defendant’s rights. For instance, a violation of a person’s constitutional, state constitutional, or other legal rights under the laws of their jurisdiction will result in a suppression of evidence tied to the violation of those rights.

Can I Suppress Any Other Evidence?

In short, yes. In addition to all of the reasons for suppressing evidence listed above, evidence may also be suppressed if the evidence violates a person’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. For example, if during interrogation or other critical stages of the criminal case a defendant was not offered to have counsel present, then any resulting evidence may be suppressed.

Further, evidence that is inherently unreliable or obtained through coercion, duress, or fraud may also be suppressed. Additionally, if there was an unreasonable delay between the criminal activity and the discovery of evidence, the evidence may be suppressed as a result of the delay. There are also state-specific rules and procedures that may lead to a suppression of evidence, if such rules and procedures are violated.

When Can The “Fruits” of an Illegal Search Be Used?

The “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine is a legal doctrine that holds that otherwise admissible evidence, testimony, or confessions may be excluded from a trial if such evidence resulted from an illegal search or other constitutional violation.

Similar to the exceptions to the exclusionary rule, there are three exceptions to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. First, evidence that has become sufficiently attenuated from an illegal search may be admissible. Next, if the police would have inevitably discovered the evidence, then it may be admissible. Finally, if the evidence was discovered through an independent, untainted source, then it may be admissible.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are involved in a criminal case and are experiencing issues associated with the criminal evidence in your case, then it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced criminal lawyer.

An experienced criminal attorney can inform you of your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws on evidence. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to timely file a motion to suppress on your behalf. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you at any in person criminal proceeding.

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