September 16, 2019

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Elements of the Exclusionary Rule

Under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, Americans have the right to security from arbitrary arrests and unreasonable searches and seizures of their property. This amendment acts as the foundation for other laws such as those related to stop-and-frisk, search warrants, safety inspections, and various forms of surveillance. For our purposes, we will focus on the clause that promises citizens the right “[…] to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […].”

This clause of the 4th Amendment – which forms the basis of “Search and Seizure Law” – has been supported in courts since the early 1960s. One of the major principles of law to emerge out this period of support was the Exclusionary Rule, which permits an accused person to “throw out” evidence that has been obtained through an illegal search. The Exclusionary Rule has been accepted by every state in one form or another.

The Basics of the Exclusionary Rule

When seeking a search warrant, a police officer must go before a judge and state his or her reasons for needing such a warrant. In listing the reasons (otherwise known as ‘probable cause’), the officer must convey two things:

  • The nature of the crime committed
  • And the reasons for suspecting this particular person

In addition to stating the reasons for a search, the officer must also state the objects that he or she will collect and submit as evidence. If at any point the warrant proves to be unconstitutional, the Exclusionary Rule – sometimes called “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree Doctrine” – may later be used to exclude the evidence obtained through that seizure.

When a warrant is given improperly or mishandled in any way, all evidence obtained through that warrant can no longer be used in a court of law to prosecute the accused. In this way, the citizen’s rights to privacy are maintained.

Litany of Exceptions

In enforcing this rule, authorities have come up against a number of problems. For instance, the question has emerged: what does one do with evidence that was wrongfully obtained but that clearly indicated the guilt of the defendant? To address this problem, state and federal courts have introduced exceptions to the rule, so that evidence normally thrown out under the Exclusionary Rule might be admissible.

One such exception is known as the Good Faith Exception. In 1984, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Leon that if an officer obtained evidence with a defective warrant without realizing that the warrant was invalid, then the evidence may be deemed admissible. The officer must also be able to show that, aside from the using an invalid warrant, he or she behaved in accordance with Search and Seizure Law.

The Attenuation Rule may also be used to override the Exclusionary Rule. Under the Attenuation Rule, if the link between the evidence and police misconduct can be shown to be sufficiently weak, then the evidence obtained may be submitted as evidence.

Another exception is known as the Inevitable Discovery Doctrine. According to this doctrine, illegally obtained evidence may be deemed admissible if it can be shown that a normal police investigation would have eventually led an officer to find the evidence anyway.

Finally, if evidence was initially gathered through an invalid warrant, but then later is obtained in a constitutional manner, then evidence may be admissible. This is known as the Independent Source Rule.

Seeking Help

The Exclusionary Rule provides necessary protections against illegal search and seizures. Issues pertaining to the admissibility of evidence can be complicated, which is why it’s important to seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. He or she can help determine the available options.

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including,, and others.