If you're facing criminal charges, but the prosecution's case rests on a key piece of evidence, do not despair. If law enforcement got the evidence illegally, it could get thrown out with the right defense strategy.
Your guilt or innocence isn't the issue here. The admissibility of police evidence is. An experienced criminal defense lawyer knows how to move to suppress evidence collected illegally or otherwise inadmissible.
This article explores the options to exclude evidence taken in violation of a defendant's Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment protections.
What Qualifies for a Motion to Suppress
Evidence used in a criminal case must be relevant and competent. This means the evidence must relate to the charges. Also, police must collect and handle evidence while following criminal law.
To have evidence thrown out in your criminal case, you must first file a motion to suppress evidence with the court. A judge will then make a ruling on the admissibility of the evidence based on the rules of criminal procedure.
This motion is typically supported by case law and the United States Constitution. You must cite the rights violated. For example, if an officer fails to provide Miranda warnings during your arrest and you make statements that the prosecution uses against you. In this case, your motion would cite a violation of your Fifth Amendment rights.
Below are some common reasons a court may suppress evidence:
Unlawful Search and Seizure
The Fourth Amendment protects against illegal search and seizure in many situations involving police officers. This includes routine traffic stops and visits to your home. With some important exceptions, police must have a valid search warrant, arrest warrant, or probable cause to search for and gather evidence.
Failure to Read Miranda Rights
The law requires that officers read "Miranda rights" to a suspect in custody before questioning or interrogating. These rights inform the suspect that they have the right to remain silent. Second, anything a defendant says will likely get used against them in court. Third, a suspect in custody has the right to an attorney. Failure to read a suspect's rights renders confessions or statements made after the arrest inadmissible.
The "chain of custody" refers to evidence documentation and proper care. This applies to evidence from its seizure by police to its presentation at trial. If the chain of custody breaks, the evidence lacks credibility and is generally inadmissible. Suppose a woman involved in a car crash has her blood drawn with a warrant. The police do this to see if she was driving while intoxicated (DUI). But, the police mislabel or mix up the blood evidence with others at the lab. This evidence is suppressible because the chain of custody was improper.
The Exclusionary Rule
The exclusionary rule prevents the government from using most evidence gathered illegally. It usually comes into play following a warrantless search. This happens when police take evidence violating a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.
For example, a murder weapon is inadmissible at trial if police illegally searched a defendant's home to recover it. An officer generally must get a valid search warrant and follow proper procedures for a piece of evidence to get admitted at trial. The rule also applies to police violations of the Fifth or Sixth Amendments.
The exclusionary rule is commonly associated with the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine. This doctrine says that otherwise admissible evidence, testimony, or even confessions may get excluded from trial if they came from an illegal search or some other constitutional rights violation.
For example, a suspect gets arrested and tells police where to find the gun used to commit the crime. If the suspect did not get his Miranda Rights before questioning or the police ignored his pleas to speak to his lawyer, the gun would likely be inadmissible in court.
Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule
Evidence is still admissible in certain instances even when police overstep the boundaries or fail to follow protocol.
For example, let's say a warrant has a technical or legal defect that the police didn't know about. A clerk mistyped an apartment number, 1011, instead of 1111. Since the police acted in good faith, the evidence derived from the search warrant doesn't necessarily get excluded in court.
But, if police know about the defect (or should've known), the evidence is likely inadmissible. For example, if the same officers previously searched the apartment, they should know the correct unit number.
Other common exceptions include:
If the judge rules that an illegally seized piece of evidence eventually would have been discovered through legal means, it's still admissible. For instance, an officer illegally enters a suspect's home and finds a cocaine lab. The occupant was already a suspect, and police were about to request a search warrant for his home. If a judge concludes that a routine police investigation would have likely uncovered that same evidence without the illegal entry, the evidence is likely admissible.
If an officer believes he is acting within the limits of the law, then some procedural errors may be overlooked. For example, police search a suspect's home based on what they honestly and reasonably believe is a valid search warrant.
A court may rule it admissible if a source other than the officer who illegally seized evidence would have given that same evidence. This is like the inevitable discovery exception. For example, police illegally search a suspect's home and find documents showing that she is the mastermind of a large-scale internet scam. But later that day, an informant sends the same documents to the police. The evidence is admissible since an independent source provided the same evidence.
Get Help With Evidence Suppression From a Skilled Defense Attorney
If someone has charged you with a crime, the outcome of your criminal trial will depend on the evidence admitted in court. A skilled criminal defense attorney can check the evidence and move to suppress illegal evidence. Taking these proactive steps may make a difference in the criminal proceedings against you.