Exclusionary Rule Essay

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The exclusionary rule holds that any evidence directly resulting from a violation of constitutional rights must be excluded from trial. Violations are generally tied to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and can occur when there is an illegal search and seizure or when the suspect makes incriminating statements in response to questions posed by law enforcement prior to notifying the suspect of his Miranda rights. These actions also violate the right to due process as given by the Fourteenth Amendment. Evidence resulting from these violations is covered by the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which holds that any evidence obtained based on the initial illegally obtained evidence must also be excluded.

The exclusionary rule protects the constitutional rights of adults as well as juveniles and derives from the 1914 U.S. Supreme Court case, Weeks v. U.S. Under the Weeks decision, the exclusionary rule applied only to federal investigations, an interpretation maintained in the 1949 case of Wolf v. Colorado. It was not until the 1961 Supreme Court decision in Mapp v. Ohio that the exclusionary rule was applied to states.

The rationale behind the implementation of the exclusionary rule was to deter law enforcement from unreasonable and unlawful conduct. While the exclusionary rule was not intended to prevent all police misconduct, it was created as a remedy to be applied when constitutional rights have been violated during the course of an investigation. In theory, there will be no motivation for law enforcement officers to engage in illegal conduct if such activity will prevent them from entering the obtained evidence at trial. As such, the rule is considered a means to protect citizens from abuse by government officials. More conservative parties, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former President Ronald Reagan, have disagreed with broad application of the exclusionary rule. There have been questions raised as to its constitutionality and the threat to public safety when a guilty party goes free due to evidence being excluded from trial. It has been argued that, regardless of how it was obtained, the evidence still exists and this evidence may secure the prosecution’s case against the defendant. Because of these concerns, over time the exclusionary rule has been limited by Supreme Court rulings recognizing that there may be exceptions to the rule that would allow for the evidence to be presented during trial.

Three of these exceptions relate specifically to the “fruit of the poisonous” tree doctrine. These include the independent source doctrine (Murray v. United States, 1984), the inevitable discovery rule (Nix v. Williams, 1984), and the attenuated connection principle (Wong Sun v. U.S., 1963), which has focused specifically on temporal proximity, intervening events, flagrancy of the violation, and the nature of the derivative evidence. The inevitable discovery rule maintains that if evidence obtained based on a violation would have been otherwise discovered lawfully, the prosecution can use it in the case against the defendant. Other exceptions to the exclusionary rule include standing, public safety, and “good faith.” Standing pertains to whether the constitutional rights of the individual making the claim have been violated and not those of a third party. The public safety exception was applied in New York v. Quarles (1984). This case involved a law enforcement officer asking the suspect about the location of the suspect’s gun, to which the suspect answered. While the question was posed prior to Miranda warnings, the court ruled that there was an immediate concern for the safety of bystanders and therefore the statements made by the suspect could be allowed in trial. The “good faith” exception is derived from the 1984 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Leon, and allows illegally obtained evidence to be presented at trial if the evidence was obtained by officers acting reasonably and in “good faith.”

For example, if law enforcement activities are based on a warrant later found not to be supported by probable cause, the evidence can still be allowed during trial because the officers reasonably and, in “good faith,” relied on the warrant that was issued. Three more recent Supreme Court cases involving the use of the exclusionary rule include Hudson v. Michigan (2006), Herring v. United States (2009), and Davis v. United States (2011). These cases have continued in the direction of further restricting the application of the rule, particularly when simple negligence was involved or the officer was acting reasonably. While these restrictions have been implemented, the Supreme Court should, based on its previous rulings, continue to use the exclusionary rule in cases where officers have acted purposefully, recklessly, or were substantially negligent in their duties.

Outside of case law, there exist ethical systems that provide support for the use of the exclusionary rule. For example, ethical formalism would support and actually dictate its use based on its emphasis on duty and its use of the categorical imperative. Utilitarianism can also be used to defend the rule, as the greatest good for the greatest number would be achieved by deterring constitutional rights violations by law enforcement. However, utilitarianism would also provide support for the public safety exception. In the case of New York v. Quarles, the greatest good was achieved by retrieving the weapon to ensure innocent bystanders were not harmed.


  1. Bradley, Craig M. “Is the Exclusionary Rule Dead.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, v.102 (2012).
  2. Clancy, Thomas. “The Irrelevance of the Fourth Amendment in the Roberts Court.” Chicago-Kent Law Review, v.85 (2010).
  3. Maclin, Tracey. The Supreme Court and the Fourth Amendment’s Exclusionary Rule. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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