How to Suppress Evidence in Your Federal Criminal Case Due to 4th Amendment Violations
Being charged with a federal crime can be an incredibly stressful and frightening experience. As a defendant, you want to make sure you have the best possible defense. One way to build your defense is to file a motion to suppress any evidence that was obtained illegally by the government. This article will explain how the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure can help you get evidence suppressed in your federal criminal case.
What is the Exclusionary Rule?
The 4th Amendment of the US Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a search. The exclusionary rule is a court-created remedy that excludes evidence obtained in violation of the 4th Amendment.
If the police search your property or person without a warrant and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, any evidence they find may be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. This means the prosecution cannot use that evidence against you in court. The theory is that suppressing illegally obtained evidence will deter police from future 4th Amendment violations.
When Does the Exclusionary Rule Apply?
For the exclusionary rule to apply, there must be a 4th Amendment violation and a close connection between the violation and the evidence found. If the police had an invalid warrant or no warrant at all, any evidence they seized directly as a result would likely be suppressed. However, if the connection between the violation and evidence is too remote, the evidence may still be admissible.
There are also exceptions where suppression may not apply even if there is a 4th Amendment violation:
- Good Faith Exception: If police reasonably relied on a warrant that is later found invalid, the evidence may be admitted.
- Independent Source Doctrine: If police obtain the same evidence through legal means separate from the illegal search, it can be admitted.
- Inevitable Discovery Doctrine: If police would have found the evidence legally anyway through another investigation already underway, it may be admitted.
- Attenuation Doctrine: If the connection between the violation and evidence is remote, the evidence may be admitted.
- Impeachment Exception: Illegally obtained evidence can sometimes still be used to impeach the defendant’s testimony if they take the stand.
Filing a Motion to Suppress
If you believe your 4th Amendment rights were violated, you can file a pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence. Your attorney will help craft the motion by:
- Identifying the search or seizure that violated your rights
- Showing you had a reasonable expectation of privacy
- Explaining how the search was illegal (no warrant, invalid warrant, etc)
- Requesting the court to suppress any evidence found as a result under the exclusionary rule
The burden will then be on the prosecution to show the search was legal or an exception applies. If the judge grants your motion, the prosecution cannot use that evidence against you at trial.
When to File the Motion
You must file your suppression motion before trial, or you may waive the right to challenge the evidence later. Be sure to file the motion as early as possible, as hearings and rulings on motions take time. Waiting until right before trial to bring a suppression motion can cause delays.
Evidence Subject to Suppression
If the direct product of the illegal search is suppressed, anything discovered as a result of that initial evidence is also subject to suppression under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. For example:
- Police illegally search your home without a warrant and find drugs. The drugs themselves are suppressed.
- Based on finding the drugs, the police then get a search warrant for your safe deposit box.
- Evidence found in your safe deposit box would also be suppressible as fruit of the poisonous tree.
However, as noted above, the prosecution can argue the evidence would have been discovered through other legal means.
Here are some real-life examples of how the exclusionary rule was applied to suppress evidence obtained through 4th Amendment violations:
- In Mapp v. Ohio, police forced open a door to a home without a warrant. Evidence found was suppressed.
- In Weeks v. United States, police searched a home twice without a warrant. Evidence found was suppressed.
- In Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, police illegally seized company documents. Copies made of the documents were also suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree.
Exceptions Did Not Apply
In these cases, the evidence was directly obtained through clear 4th Amendment violations. No warrant exceptions applied, and the evidence could not have been discovered through other legal means. Therefore, the exclusionary rule mandated suppression.
Seeking an Attorney’s Help
Trying to get evidence suppressed without an attorney would be extremely unwise. Only about 0.4% of federal criminal cases get declined due to 4th Amendment issues. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will know how to effectively argue for suppression when warranted under the exclusionary rule. They can also advise you if trying to suppress evidence in your case would be pointless or impossible given the circumstances.
Getting illegally obtained evidence suppressed under the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule can greatly help your defense in a federal criminal case. However, suppression is not guaranteed and depends on the specifics of your case. Be sure to consult with a criminal defense attorney to assess whether filing a motion to suppress would benefit your case. An attorney can then skillfully handle that motion for you if it is advisable. With an experienced lawyer arguing to exclude illegally seized evidence, you will have the best possible chance of success.