One of the most significant aspects of crime investigation is getting hold of evidence through search of individuals and residence, and the seizure of things. Simultaneously, the law does not permit access to private properties illegally or without warrant. In a democratically governed state, the constitution protects the citizens from unwarranted invasion of their privacy or property by the state agents. Such kind of infringements is not only illegal but also violates the fundamental human rights under the United Nations Charter (Basdeo, 2009, p. 4). The main focus of this study is the legal perspective of law enforcement agencies’ powers of search and seizure under criminal justice systems. The study will also explore cases where physical evidences can be excluded in a criminal justice procedure; “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine.
The US Supreme Court defines the word “search” as the intrusion of private property or privacy by state agents. The fourth Amendment permits search of private property or intrusion of privacy. In the case of United States versus Robinson, the US Supreme Court granted warranted further search while the accused was still under arrest. This investigation did not bear any fruit since no further evidence could be discovered. The court tried to justify their action by citing that upon lawful arrest of the accused they required no further justification for their action (Basdeo, 2009, p. 4; Geyer, 2007, p. 7).
When the suspect is still at the police station, a further search may be conducted without a justification. Search may include area in which the suspect had immediate control or where he/she may for instance acquired weapons or destructible evidence. Such powers do not include the overall search of premises in which the suspect was arrested (Geyer, 2007, p. 8).
Seizure is defined as an act of physically taking or taking away tangible private property. Seizure in most cases takes place when there is consequential interference with an individual’s ownership interest in the property. In US, the word seizure and search are used interchangeably. In the real sense they have separate and distinct concepts. In other countries like South Africa the word seizure not only means taking possession of private property, but also the consequent detention of the same. In addition, the US act includes seizure of individual suspects (Skinnider, 2005, p. 3; Basdeo, 2009, p. 5).
Rules Governing search and Seizure in US
First, search and seizure must be in accordance with the law. In case of unlawful search and arrest, evidence obtained is inadmissible in the court except in exceptional cases. In United States versus Agnello case, US Supreme Court while acknowledging the right to search and arrest a person in accordance with law also admitted that there are some incidences where this right is limited (Basdeo, 2009, p. 5).
Secondly, the search must be done at the same time with arrest. The rationale for this rule is to protect the law enforcement agency and the destruction of the evidence. In determining the contemporaneous of these events, the court should consider the place of arrest, moment of arrest, the situation leading to arrest, and the level of custodial control. Lastly, the search and arrest must be in good faith. In case the court establishes that the arrest was a prank or a deception to search, the evidence collected during the search is not admissible in court (Basdeo, 2009, p. 6; Skinnider, 2005, p. 4).
Even though there are numerous laws which permits search and seizures without warrant, the significant factor is the Criminal Procedure Act. This law goes against the right to privacy and must be vindicated under the restraint clause. Generally, search and seizure are conducted after a search or arrest warrant is issued by a judicial officer. However, there are some cases where the delay of obtaining the warrant may defeat the objective of the search and that is where this act is applicable. In this case only delay can be used as an excuse. Where a warrant could not be acquired in the absence of difficult situation, a warrantless search is considered illegal under the constitutional right to privacy. Law enforcement agents are also allowed to confiscate any object found in the suspect’s premises which can cause harm (Skinnider, 2005, p. 4).
The term “fruit of poisonous tree principle” is set in the Anglo-American general laws referring to illegal investigation, search and seizure and whether impartial evidence gathered illegally can be admissible in court. The metaphor symbolizes tainted evidence (tree) which produces flawed results (fruits). Illegally or improperly evidence is severe act of human right violation. The ability to exclude unlawfully obtained evidence normally results in excessive litigations, and confusion in the interpretation. Such confusion arises when victims demand compensation for violation, in the prevention of constitutional violations, and avoiding police misconduct (Skinnider, 2005, p. 5; Geyer, 2007, p. 3).
Use of DNA in Criminal Justice System
DNA technology is swiftly and reasonably gaining momentum in the courtrooms nowadays. However, the integration of the DNA into the criminal justice system has been slower and composite. Nonetheless, there are a number of areas where legal experts have reached consensus on the use of DNA while there are some few controversial areas. Consensus areas include effectiveness of DNA database and advanced forensic tools, and some degree of post-conviction warrant. Debates have been on how post-conviction and database programs should operate, and the set of laws that should oversee them (Lazer & Meyer, 2002, p. 4; Welch, 2002, p.10-11).
The rules governing the collection of forensic evidence are more or less similar with other form of evidence. The evidence must be gathered in accordance with law and this means with the permission of the owner or on the incident of arrest. The evidence must be carefully collected, packaged and transported to avoid contamination. The evidence must be accompanied with on the field/ scene notes that will assist forensic experts in the analysis process. This also includes markings for later identification. The evidence must be stored in a safe place where access is restricted to authorized persons. Last but not the least the evidence must be properly sealed on submission to the forensic laboratory. Brocken or tampered seal means that the evidence has been interfered with and thus inadmissible in the court of law (Lazer & Meyer, 2002, p. 5-6; Welch, p. 12).
From the Steven’s versus William case, William’s lawyer first argument may be based on the prosecutor’s reliance on the hearsay and not the tangible evidence. This is related to the statement from Mrs. Steven alleging that William had entered into their town house several times unannounced and on many occasions appeared to be getting into her bed. The lawyer will term it as malicious statement against his client given the fact that Mrs. Steven never reported this to the authority. The lawyer can even argue that Mrs. Steven and William may have had an affair and that she might be the cause of her husband’s death (Geyer, 2007, p. 5).
The second argument will be based on the “fruit of poisonous tree principle”. The crime scene investigators collected the evidence first and took them to the forensic lab for analysis. After establishing that the DNA material matched with William is when the warrant of arrest for William was issued. The conventional rule of search and seizure states that, the search must be done at the same time with arrest. The rationale for this rule is to protect the law enforcement agency and the destruction of the evidence (Basdeo, 2009, p. 4; Geyer, 2007, p. 7).
In determining the contemporaneous of these events, the court should consider the place of arrest, moment of arrest, the situation leading to arrest, and the level of custodial control. In this case, William was arrested very far away from the crime scene and search was not done simultaneously with the arrest. Secondly, William had no full custody of the crime scene and was arrested several hours later. The lawyer may even argue that the forensic evidence was tampered with to frame his client. Therefore, the William’s room was illegal since William was not informed, investigation was carried out in his absence and his arrest was not contemporaneous with the search (Skinnider, 2005, p. 5; Geyer, 2007, p. 3).
On the other hand, the investigation carried out at Steven’s home was in accordance with the law since his wife gave the permission for the investigation to be carried out and she was around during the search. The Crime Scene Investigators may argue that in William’s case there was urgency for search to be carried out and delay in receiving the warrant may have defeated the objective of the search. But in this case we are not seeing the accused having the intention of interfering with the investigation since he was arrested several miles away from his place of residence. We are also not told if he was planning to escape (Basdeo, 2009, p. 4; Geyer, 2007, p. 4).
In a nut shell, the search carried out in Mrs. Elis’ house is illegal. The search was conducted in Mrs. Elis and William’s absence and we are not told if she consented to the search. Second, the crime scene investigators searched without a warrant and therefore, the evidence obtained from Mrs. Elis’ place may be considered as “fruit of the poisonous tree” (Geyer, 2007, p. 3).
The legal procedure should have involved interviewing Mrs. Elvis and Steven to find the lead to the crime and then seeking for search and seizure warrant. After the warrant is obtained the, the investigators should have arrested the major suspects including William and Mrs. Steven and searched at the same time. In this way, the evidence acquired will be used to exonerate or to hold up a suspect for further investigation (Skinnider, 2005, p. 3; Basdeo, 2009, p. 5).
One of the most important aspects of crime investigation is getting hold of evidence through search of individuals and residence, and the seizure of things. Search and seizure is only permitted when it is in accordance with the law. When done illegally, the evidence obtained during the process is likely to be excluded from the court case in accordance with the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. However, there are cases where search and seizure may be carried out illegally. In such cases, delay of issuing the search warrant should be the only excuse. Otherwise, any action carried out without following appropriate legal procedure is unacceptable.
Basdeo, V. (2009). A Constitutional Perspective of Police Powers of Search and Seizure in the Criminal Justice System. Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Geyer, F. (2007). Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: Members States’ Indirect Use of Extraordinary Rendition and the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, CEPS Working Document No. 263, 1-27.
Lazer, D., & Meyer, M.N. (2002). DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Consensus and Debate. Las Vegas: Federal Forensic Department.
Skinnider, E. (2005). Improperly or Illegally Obtained Evidence: The Exclusionary Evidence Rule in Canada. Vancouver: International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy.
Welch, T. (2002). Computer Crime Investigation & Computer Forensics. Information Systems Security, 6 (2), 1-42.