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Does Miranda Bear Poisonous Fruit?

Despite what lower courts might sometimes incorrectly rule, failing to mirandize a suspect does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

September 01, 2004  |  by Devallis Rutledge

The federal court of appeals reversed the conviction and suppressed the gun under a "fruit of the poison tree" theory. The appeals court noted that in Dickerson v. U.S., the Supreme Court had called the Miranda rule a "constitutional rule," and interpreted this to mean that officers violate the Constitution when they do not comply with Miranda procedures, thus invoking the derivative evidence exclusionary rule.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed this ruling and held that the "fruit of the poison tree" analysis does not apply to Miranda issues. As the Patane decision explains, the Miranda rule is indeed a constitutional rule-but that rule is simply that judges may not admit non-complying statements at trial. The constitutional rule of Miranda relates to admissibility of statements-not to any mandate that police give the warnings and obtain a waiver. Therefore, if a statement is found to lack compliance with Miranda procedures, although that statement itself is inadmissible, evidence derived from it is not. Said the court: "The exclusionary rule articulated in cases such as Wong Sun does not apply."

Non-Complying Statements

Because statements taken without full compliance with Miranda's admissibility procedures have not been obtained "unlawfully" or "unconstitutionally," the statements themselves and information or evidence gained from them can legitimately be used for a variety of important purposes, such as clearing innocent suspects, recovering bodies or stolen property, identifying accomplices, and clearing unsolved cases.

A number of previous court decisions, grasping the distinction between Miranda and the Constitution, had already rejected a "fruit of the poison tree" extension of Miranda, allowing limited uses of statements and their derivative evidence. Examples of these limited uses include:

  • Locating witnesses to the crime. (Michigan v. Tucker)
  • Impeaching the defendant's trial testimony. (Harris v. New York; Oregon v. Hass)
  • Probable cause for arrest. (U.S. v. Morales)
  • Probable cause for a search warrant. (U.S. v. Patterson)
  • Recovery of physical evidence. (U.S. v. Villalba-Alvarado)

Precautions

It's obviously preferable to obtain statements that will be fully admissible at trial. This means that custodial interrogation should scrupulously adhere to the Miranda procedures wherever possible. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to predict which way a court will rule on many questions that arise about Miranda issues. As the court itself has acknowledged, "In many cases, a breach of Miranda procedures may not be identified as such until long after full Miranda warnings are administered and a valid confession obtained." (Oregon v. Elstad)

In cases where questioning occurs without satisfying Miranda's admissibility conditions, officers should be aware that a resulting statement and other evidence it leads to may still have legitimate investigative and prosecutorial value, so any such statements should be fully documented in arrest reports.

Always remember that actual coercion, such as mistreatment or the use of threats or overbearing promises of leniency, may make a statement and its derivative fruits completely inadmissible for any purpose, and may cause civil liability if found to be so egregious as to "shock the conscience." (See "Cops and Civil Liability," Point of Law, Police September 2003.)

Attorney Devallis Rutledge, a former police officer and prosecutor, defends officers and agencies at Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez.

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Tags: Point of Law, Miranda Law, Fourth Amendment


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