Admissibility of Illegally Obtained Evidence

By | September 1, 2021
Admissibility of Illegally Obtained Evidence

This article on ‘Admissibility of illegally obtained evidence’ is written by Nilanjana Banerjee and aims to deal with the nitty-gritty of legal procedure and violation of privacy in the context of Mapp v. Ohio (1961).

I. Introduction

Almost every constitution grants the right to life and privacy as it is considered to be a very basic right, but the question that arises is, is it an absolute right or there are limitations to it too and the answer to this is that the right is not an absolute one.

There are certain restrictions, more precisely reasonable restrictions. The term ‘reasonable restrictions’ is very wide and what comes within its ambit has to be decided circumstances to circumstances. However, there is one thing common to every situation i.e. the right to privacy can be violated in the due process established by law.

This means for legal procedures, like search seizures, police interrogation, privacy can be violated. The term which garners attention is ‘legal procedure’.

II. Fourth Amendment & Exclusionary Rule

The 4th amendment to US Constitution forbids the police from conducting any unreasonable search or seizure. It mandates that they should have a valid warrant and if not a probable cause to conduct a search.

For almost a century, this rule brought in by the 4th Amendment had very little value, the evidence seized by police even in violation of the provision (under the 4th Amendment) was admissible in court during the prosecution and the want of warrant or a probable cause was not given much importance.

But the situation changed completely in 1914, by the US Supreme court decision in the case of Weeks v. US. In this case, the exclusionary rule to the 4th amendment was laid down. Thereafter Mapp v. Ohio made it applicable to all states.

The exclusionary rule gives the courts power of excluding such incriminating evidence which has been procured by violation of the constitutional provision of the 4th amendment. By virtue of this ‘exclusionary rule’, the defendants can challenge the validity and admissibility of the evidence to suppress it by a pre-trial motion. If the court still allows the evidence to be produced during the trial, the defendant possesses the rights to challenge the trial court’s decision on the motion to suppress on appeal. This way the defendant can be safeguarded and his constitutional right can be protected from being violated.

Another concept quite collateral to the exclusionary rule is ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’. As per this doctrine, the court can exclude not only that evidence which itself acquired in violation of the 4th amendment but also that other such evidence which are derived from an illegal search.

Elaborating this concept with an example, suppose the defendant was arrested for abducting and in custody he confesses his crime. If the arrest made is declared unconstitutional, then the confession made shall also be considered tainted and hence such confession will be deemed inadmissible in a court of law.

III. What Did the fourth Amendment Say?

The words of the 4th amendment say,

“ The right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The US Constitution through the 4th amendment aims at protecting its citizens from unreasonable seizures and searches by the government which means the fourth amendment is a guarantee only against searches that are deemed unreasonable under the law. There is no abstract standard to determine unreasonable search.

The extent to which an individual is protected by the 4th amendment depends on circumstances to circumstances and partly on the location of the seizure. (As was said in the case of Minnesota v. Carter)[1]. Home- Search and seizures in a house without a warrant is presumed to be unlawful. (Payton v. New York)[2]

But there are exceptions to this presumption which are listed below-

  1. When the officer is given consent to do a search. ( as said in Davis v. US)[3]
  2. When the search is incidental to a lawful arrest. ( as said in US v. Robinson)[4]
  3. When the items in search are in plain view. ( Maryland v. Macon)[5]
  4. If there is a probable cause to search and exigent circumstances exist. (Payton v. New York)[6]

1. Person

When a person is engaged in unusual conduct which leads a police officer to reasonably suspect him and conclude that any criminal activity might be afoot. In such cases, the police may stop the suspicious person and make a basic inquiry to confirm or dispel the officer’s suspicion. This was laid down in the case of Terry v. Ohio[7].

2. School

As per the case of New Jersey v. TLO[8], the school authority does not need any warrant to conduct a search of such a student who is under their authority. The search of a student needs to be reasonable under every circumstance.

3. Cars or other vehicles

In the case of Arizona v. Gant[9] court has said where there is probable cause to believe that a vehicle may contain evidence of any criminal offence, the police are empowered to lawfully search the vehicle.

4. In case of traffic violation and suspicion of criminal activity afoot exists

A traffic stop may be conducted. This has been clarified in the case of Berkmer v. McCarthy[10]. And, in any traffic stop, the police may conduct a search of any driver or passenger. For such a search, no suspicion of criminal activity should exist.

Moreover, the use of a Narcotics detection dog to sniff around the exterior of a car does not require any suspicion. (Illinois v. Caballes)[11]. Routines stops and checks can be conducted by police officers at the international borders (as was said in the case of U.S. v. Montoya De Hermandez)[12]

In the case of Illinois v. Lidster[13], the court said that in such places where recently any crime has occurred, the police can set up checkpoints. Moreover, the officer can seek voluntary cooperation in such an investigation process.

However, a state cannot use any highway checkpoint which is set up for the discovery of illegal narcotics. This was said in the case of City of Indianapolis v. Edmond.[14]

In this way, the situation differs.

IV. ‘Pre- Mapp v. Ohio’ Situation

The issue of admissibility of evidence acquired by illegal search and seizure arose in several cases, two of such landmark cases are discussed subsequently. The first one being Week v. US[15], while the second one is Wolf v. Colorado.[16]

1. Weeks v. US

Weeks was arrested by police without a warrant and then his house was searched by them. Certain papers and articles were taken away for submitting to United States Marshal. Thereafter, they returned with Marshal to Week’s house and searched his room for certain envelopes- letters, neither the marshal nor the police had a warrant to do so but he was charged with the use of mails for transporting lottery tickets and coupons. The District Court had denied his pre-trial petition to suppress the evidence.

The issue was ‘whether the warrantless search and seizure of Week’s private correspondence are violative of the 4th amendment?’

Answering this in affirmative, the court said the seizure of letters, envelopes for Week’s private residence was violative of constitutional rights. Moreover, the government’s refusal to return the seized articles violated the provisions of the 4th amendment. Allowing private documents to be seized and thereafter producing as evidence against them would make the 4th amendment provisions of no value at all. The police did not act under the claim of federal authority, thus it was unreasonable. This was deemed to be the 1st application of the exclusionary rule.

2. Wolf v. Colorado

Petitioner Wolf was convicted of conspiracy to commit abortion in state court and then he appealed. He claimed that his 4th amendment constitutional right is violated as the pieces of evidence obtained were as a result of illegal search and seizure. He demanded to exclude them from the trial.

The question arose that whether the state courts were required to exclude illegally obtained evidence from trial under the 4th and 14th Amendments?

To this, the court said that the 14th amendment did not subject criminal justice in the states to specific limitations. Moreover, the court added that illegally obtained evidence need not be excluded from all trial cases, as there can be other effective methods too which will deter the unreasonable searches made. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Wiley Rutledge and Justice Frank Murphy said that failure to observe the protection and not sanctioning it makes the amendment a dead letter.

V. Mapp v. Ohio Case

As already seen, Weeks v. US, for the first time laid down the exclusionary rule. Thereafter, it wasn’t extended to state courts in the case of Wolf v. Colorado. Finally, it was in Mapp v. Ohio that Supreme Court applied the rule universally to all the criminal proceedings.

This case arose in 1957 when police in Cleveland entered Mapp’s house and conducted a search without any warrant. The search by police was in suspect of bombs but no such articles were found, instead some lascivious pictured were found, such pictures are banned under Ohio law. He was convicted of keeping in possession such pictured which violate the law based on such pictures which were acquired by warrantless search.

Mapp then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, where the unlawfulness of such search was identified but he was still convicted. The matter then went to US Supreme Court, where Ohio Supreme Court’s decision was reversed. Justice Tom C. Clark said that the fourth amendment strictly prohibits the use of such evidence which are a violation of it.

Moreover, he said such evidences are bound to be unconstitutional. Without effectuating the deterrent effect, the fourth amendment would remain mere words and might as well be stricken from the constitution. It even incorporated the protection against the intrusion of privacy by police. To withhold this implies guaranteeing such protection only on papers. The Supreme Court in a vote of 6:3 held that evidences seized against Mapp will be inadmissible in court.

Justice Tom Clark said ‘Since the 4th amendment right of privacy has been declared against states through due process clause, it is enforceable against them by the same sanction of exclusion as is used against the federal government, were it otherwise, then just as without the Week’s rule the assurance against unreasonable federal searches- seizures would be a “form of words” valuables,

undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inadmissible human liberties, so too without that rule, the freedom from state invasion of privacy would be so ephemeral and no neatly severed from its conceptual nexus if the freedom from all brutish means of coercing evidence as not to merit this court’s high regard as a freedom implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’

This decision of Mapp v. Ohio was quite controversial and it has opened up the court to a number of difficult cases as to the applicability of ‘exclusionary rule’. Subsequently, in Nix v. Williams case, Supreme Court created a rule of ‘inevitable discovery’. As per this if a piece of evidence would have eventually been discovered through legal means, then it is admissible in a court of law.

Prior to the case of Mapp v. Ohio, the ban on the use of illegally obtained evidence was limited only to the federal courts. This ban got extended to the state courts by virtue of the doctrine of ‘selective incorporation’. As per this doctrine, the claim ‘due process of law’ of the 14th Amendment bans the state from formulating and thereafter enacting such laws which infringe the rights of the American citizens.

 In this way, new rules are being formulated and all reasonably possible freedoms are granted to citizens.


References

[1] 523 U.S. 83 (1998).

[2] 445 U.S. 573 (1980)

[3] 328 U.S. 582 (1946)

[4] 414 U.S. 218 (1973)

[5] 472 U.S. 463 (1985)

[6] 445 U.S. 573 (1980)

[7] 329 U.S. 1  (1968)

[8] 469 U.S. 325 (1985)

[9] 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2000)

[10] 468 U.S. 420 (1984)

[11] 543 U.S. 405 (2005)

[12] 473 U.S. 531 (1985)

[13] 540 U.S. 419 (2004)

[14] 531 U.S. 32 (2000)

[15] 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

[16] 338 U.S. 25 (1949)


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination

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