Excluding a Piece of Evidence from Trial – The Exclusionary Rule

As the name implies, the exclusionary rule works to exclude or “leave out” a piece of evidence in a criminal or civil trial. Essentially, this rule is used in courts across the U.S. to keep people’s constitutional rights from being abused by police or other government agents. Anyone who has watched CSI or other crime dramas on television has probably heard of the exclusionary rule, however most of these shows don’t properly depict how this rule can impact the outcome in real world cases.

Essentially, evidence that is gathered by the prosecution in an unlawful manner should be excluded from trial. When evidence is obtained in an illegal manner it may violate the constitutional rights of the defendant; if so, it cannot be used as evidence against the defendant in an effort to secure a conviction. Examples of this are when police, law enforcement agencies, or other government agencies collect evidence in an unlawful search or seizure, or other conduct that violates the defendant’s constitutional rights.

Suppose you are pulled over while driving down the road and police have no probable cause or reasonable suspicion for doing so. You weren’t speeding, driving in an erratic manner, or violating any traffic rules. All of your headlights, tail lights, and brake lights are working and your tags haven’t expired. There was absolutely no reason for police to pull you over, however in doing so they find a bag of marijuana or other illegal substance in the passenger seat. Can the bag of marijuana or drugs be used as evidence to prove the crime of drug possession? Under the exclusionary rule, it shouldn’t be admissible as evidence.

As with almost all rules, there are exceptions. Some of those that apply to the exclusionary rule include good faith, inevitable discovery rule, and attenuation doctrine.

The good faith exception may apply in a situation in which even though a warrant wasn’t obtained before police conducted a search, law enforcement can demonstrate the action taken was in “good faith.”

With the inevitable discovery rule evidence that was obtained in an illegal manner may be used against the defendant if it is inevitable the evidence would be discovered at some point in a lawful manner.

Another exception, the attenuation doctrine, may apply when evidence is unlawfully obtained however a remote connection exists between the evidence and how it was obtained. For instance, in the example above where you are pulled over by police without reasonable suspicion police learn there is an outstanding arrest warrant against you. In this situation, the bag of marijuana may be admissible as evidence as the existence of an arrest warrant “attenuated” the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence discovered during that stop.

It isn’t unusual for evidence to be collected in an illegal manner, but it is important for those facing criminal charges to understand the exclusionary rule and that potentially damaging evidence may be excluded from trial in some cases. Depending on the circumstances, having a piece of evidence excluded at trial can mean the difference between a conviction and acquittal. It is important to speak with an experienced Michigan criminal defense attorney who can further explain the exclusionary rule, the exceptions, and how excluding evidence may benefit the outcome of your case.

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