Traffic Ticket Trial – Suppression of Evidence and Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

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At Palumbo & Associates, PC trial practice is key to our success in getting you the outcome you want when we defend your speeding ticket charge under VTL § 1180, or any other moving violation or traffic crime charge. The better we are at defending clients at trial equates into better pre-trial offers to resolve on a plea bargain to avoid the risk of loss and being found guilty as charged. Consequently, trial strategy comes into play. One major avenue to weaken the prosecutor’s case against you is to have evidence suppressed from trial. The less evidence the prosecution can offer in evidence at trial the better chances you have for success. If evidence of an indispensable element of the prosecutor’s case is suppressed from trial your case must be dismissed.

Example: Identification of the motorist is always in issue at trial and necessary for the state to prove its case. In other words, the prosecution must, through their witnesses, identify you the motorist as the operator of the vehicle at the time of the stop. If your defense counsel gets a pre-trial ruling suppressing from trial evidence your identification as the operator of the vehicle, the entire case must be dismissed without a trial because the prosecution cannot meet that burden of proof at trial.

Suppression of Evidence

In the United States the public has a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and has the right to remain silent, and also has a right to due process of law. However, what happens when a police officer, in obtaining evidence against you, violates those rights? In other words, suppose that a police officer, having no search warrant or probable cause, searched you and found contraband such as drugs and as a consequence arrested you? If the prosecution were allowed to proceed forward even though the police trampled all over your constitutional rights to obtain evidence against you, what relevance would having constitutional protections have?

Consequently, the remedy to protect the public’s constitutional rights is to suppress the evidence from trial. In other words, evidence gleaned illegally in derogation of constitutional and statutory rights will be prohibited from evidence. The determination as to whether evidence should be suppressed from trial is vetted out at a pre-trial suppression hearing. Simply put, this is a mini framed issue trial over the propriety and legality of the evidence seized against you. These hearings are always in front of a judge and never in front of a jury, because these are legal determinations and not factual ones. If the judge finds that the evidence was properly gleaned then the prosecutor may enter it into evidence at trial. If the judge finds that the evidence was gleaned illegally in derogation of constitutional protections the judge will suppress the evidence.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Part and parcel to, and borne out of the suppression doctrine is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. What the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine holds is that not only will evidence illegally gleaned by suppressed, but any subsequent evidence derived from the illegality be suppressed as well. For example, suppose a motorist is driving with a suspended license and is pulled over for failing to signal a turn. Subsequent to the stop the police officer arrests the motorist for failing to signal VTL § 1163 as well as aggravated unlicensed operation, NY VTL § 511. At a pre-trial hearing the judge determines that while the motorist did not signal, in their particular situation they were under no legal obligation to signal. Consequently, the stop was illegal and because of that all evidence gleaned after the illegal stop must be suppressed from evidence as fruit of the poisonous tree. Inasmuch as the police officer only learned of the suspended license after the illegal stop, evidence of the suspended license must likewise be suppressed from evidence and, as such, the case must be dismissed.

The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was first established in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920), although the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was first coined 19 years later in Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338 (1939). While this is a very powerful doctrine for criminal defendants, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, evidence will not be suppressed if the court finds that the discovery was inevitable under the “inevitable discovery” doctrine, if the evidence was discovered from a source independent from government illegal activity, and when there are superseding and intervening events between the illegal search and seizure which attenuates the illegality and the discovery.

What this means to our clients

Having a high degree of training and experience in spotting and developing suppression issues is important to motorists charged with speeding and traffic tickets and auto crimes. Before a court will hold a suppression hearing it is up to the motorist / defendant to raise the issue in written form and assert a certain quantum of evidence to demand a suppression hearing on the issue. Unless a defendant raises the issue the court is under no obligation to suppress evidence on its own accord and will allow all presented evidence in at trial. Moreover, before you can raise the issue, you must first spot the issue. The issues are subtle and nuanced and for the most part beyond the ken of the average person. This is why it is always best to retain the services of an experienced NY traffic court lawyer.

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