Search and Seizure

A review of the facts of the case shows that the victim, Clyde Stevens, was found by Mary Ellis, a senior citizen, in her townhouse with “a large butcher knife protruding from his back.” He was later pronounced dead by emergency medical service personnel who accompanied police officers when they responded to the 911 call placed by Mary Ellis. William, the adult son of Mary Ellis who shares the townhouse with her but who was not around when the police arrived, was later arrested as the prime suspect in the case.

According to the facts of the case, the police gathered their evidence from the townhouse of Mary Ellis and the Stevens residence under different circumstances, although no search warrants were obtained for both. In the case of the Stevens residence, the police was able to obtain Mrs. Sheila Stevens’ consent to search her home. It was not the case with the townhouse of Mary Ellis, however, because the widow could not have granted her consent as she was rushed to the hospital for observation after her discovery of the body.

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Meanwhile, after establishing the townhouse of Mary Ellis as a crime scene, the police searched the place even without a search warrant. It was during that search that crime scene technicians were able to develop a blood fingerprint near a light switch in the bedroom of William Ellis. Later DNA analysis established that the recovered blood matched the blood of the victim, Clyde Stevens, while the fingerprint was undoubtedly that of William’s right index finger. On the strength of the evidence of that blood fingerprint, together with some “associated evidence” found in the Stevens home, William was arrested in Utah, brought back to Illinois, and charged with the killing of Clyde Stevens.

However, because of the warrantless search conducted by the police in the residence of Mary Ellis, the lawyer who represented William Ellis filed a motion to exclude evidence, invoking the Exclusionary Rule. According to the Fourth Amendment, all police searches should be made under the authority of a properly-issued warrant. In the absence of a search warrant, the Exclusionary Rule protects everybody, including suspects in criminal cases, from “unreasonable seizures.” The substance of this rule is that any evidence which was not obtained legally, i.e. with the proper warrant, could not be admitted legally in any court of law. This rule was first established in connection with the Weeks v. U.S. (1914) but was only applied in the states in 1961 as a consequence of Mapp v. Ohio. (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006) In the Weeks v. United States, the federal court stated that the Fourth Amendment limits and restrains the power of federal and court officials and secures “the people, their persons, houses, papers and effects against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law.” However, the federal ruling on Weeks was not immediately recognized by the states. In fact in Wolf v. Colorado in 1949, the Exclusionary Rule was not applied. It was not until Mapp v. Ohio 12 years later that the United States Supreme Court decided to make the rule applicable to all the states. The court based its decision on the fact that the act of the states in admitting evidence which has been seized unlawfully “serves to encourage disobedience to the Federal Constitution which it is bound to uphold” because it is in contravention with the Fourth Amendment. (Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 1961)

The Exclusionary Rule was created as a judicial order aimed at professionalizing the police forces throughout the country. Although it was actually started as a “social experiment,” it was not meant to protect suspects from being prosecuted, but to ensure that majority of Americans benefit from the services of scrupulous and highly professionalized police forces – even at the expense of letting some guilty parties go free. (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

Opponents of the Exclusionary Rule, on the other hand, assert that it is in reality contradicting the common law on which the American law has been based. According to them, the common law justifies illegal search as long as it could establish the guilt of the defendant beyond reasonable doubt afterwards, while the Exclusionary Rule excludes evidence even if it proves the defendant guilty as long as it was acquired without the necessary warrant or seized under illegal circumstances. They question the fact that it was implemented only in 1914 when in reality the Fourth Amendment, under which it was supposed to be imbedded, was added to the U.S. Constitution as early as 1791. This means that for one hundred twenty-three years thereafter the United States Supreme Court had been applying the common law, thereby allowing evidence for its probative value no matter how it was obtained. (Tinsley & Kinsella, 2003) Others maintain that if contraband is uncovered by police officers even under any manner that violates the constitution and the rights of individuals under the constitution it would still be ridiculous to pretend that said contraband does not, in fact, exist. They refer to this rule as a loophole that often enables criminals to escape the punishment of the law. (Exclusionary Rule, n.d.)

Included under the Exclusionary Rule is the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine. First applied in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. U.S. in 1920, this doctrine states that aside from the inadmissibility of evidence obtained illegally, all other subsequent evidence or testimony resulting from such illegally obtained evidence becomes illegal as well. (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006) The theory behind this doctrine is that an evidence obtained illegally (referred to as the tree) is poisoned – therefore, any subsequent evidence (the fruit) that is developed from it is also poisoned. In other words if an evidence is illegally obtained, all other evidence that the police could derive from that original evidence are likewise illegal and could not be admissible in court. (, n.d.)

In searching the townhouse of Mary Ellis, the police might have thought that since the place was the scene of the crime, a warrant was no longer necessary. Unfortunately, even in a crime scene, the law says that a warrant should first be obtained before any search could be done. However, there are many legal justifications for warrantless searches. One of these is the “crime scene search exception.” While it is true that the police could secure a place where a crime is believed to have been committed – preventing people from entering, touching or removing anything from it, even putting a stop to all activities therein – searching the place for evidence is not legal without a warrant unless it is believed that the killer has not left the place yet and an arrest could be effected if only an immediate search of the premises is done, or that somebody in the premises is in danger and is in need of urgent assistance. This is what is referred to as a “crime scene search exception” and was best shown in Mincey v. Arizona in 1978. In that case, a police officer was killed. In their eagerness to solve the crime and punish the killer of a fellow police officer as soon as possible, investigators subjected the crime scene to a search which lasted for four days, turning the place into a mess. The court decided that such an overzealous method of investigating a case, even if it involved the death of a police officer, was unconstitutional and unreasonable without a crime scene exception. This decision was upheld by later cases such as the Thomson v. Louisiana in 1984, the Michigan v. Clifford also in 1984, and the 1999 Flippo v. West Virginia case. In the Clifford case, the court even ruled that the police could not be permitted to “roam freely” even in a case where arson was involved. (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

Another legal justification for a warrantless search is the “emergency situation exception.” An example is if police or witnesses heard gunshots being fired or screams for help from victims of crimes, where the responding police officers are required to act immediately and could therefore no longer find time to obtain a warrant. Under these circumstances, searching the place without a warrant could be considered constitutional “if it was conducted with the primary purposes of ascertaining the cause, bringing the emergency under control, and keeping the response within the scope of what is necessary to address the emergency.” Cited cases included “U.S. v. Holloway 2002, U.S. v. Gray 1999 and Brigham City v. Stuart, 2006.”  (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

Inevitable Discovery Doctrine, Open Fields Doctrine, Plain View Doctrine, and Consent Search Doctrine are more examples of legal justifications for warrantless searches. Inevitable Discovery Doctrine is what is commonly referred to as the “loophole to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.” This means that even if the evidence was obtained illegally or without a warrant, it could still be deemed admissible if the police could prove that there is a very great likelihood that said evidence would inevitably be discovered later during the course of the investigation as in the case of Nix v. Williams in 1984. Actually this doctrine was established to “restore police to the same position they would have been if no police error or misconduct had occurred.” (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

The doctrine of Open Fields, on the other hand, states that an object or an activity sited outdoors where it could be plainly observed or easily accessed by anybody on foot, from inside any motor vehicle, low-flying aircraft with fixed wing, or a helicopter, could not be considered private and could not therefore be protected by the Fourth Amendment. This means that even if a dwelling unit is protected by a fence, the fenced-in ground is still considered an open field if people can peep through any or some cracks in the fence, or if the fence is low enough for people to have a clear view of the ground without standing on their toes or standing on top of any other objects in order to have a clear line of sight. The protection against intrusion exercised by the owner such as a locked gate is also taken into consideration. Open fields include streets, sidewalks, bodies of water, outdoor fields, or even the curtilage of a residential building if it is in plain view of people standing outside the fence. (FindLaw, n.d.)

Meanwhile, the Plain View Doctrine refers to a situation where an officer sees an illegal object in a place where his or her presence is authorized or allowed under the law. Under this doctrine, the officer is allowed to seize the object and arrest its owner for illegally possessing said contraband even without a warrant provided that before the seizure the officer could establish “probable cause” that the object in question is indeed contraband. The law says that the privacy protection afforded by the Fourth Amendment does not extend to the owner of an illegal substance under the described circumstances. (Findlaw, n.d.) The Doctrine of Open Fields was upheld in 1984 in the Oliver v. U.S. and in 1992 in the U.S. v. Dunn while the Plain View Doctrine was applied in Horton v. California in 1990. (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

The only legal justification for a warrantless search present in the case study was with regards the search conducted by investigators in the Stevens residence. The consent search exception was provided by Sheila Stevens when she gave her consent voluntarily to the police to search her house for possible evidence that could help identify the murderer of her husband. According to this exception, anybody who has a “common authority or has frequent access over the premises…can authorize a consent search.” (SEARCH AND SEIZURE: A GUIDE TO RULES, REQUIREMENTS, TESTS, DOCTRINES, AND EXCEPTIONS, 2006)

Since not even one legal justification for a warrantless search manifested itself in connection with the Ellis residence, the motion for exclusion of evidence made by William’s lawyer was reasonable. Under the circumstances, the police should have first secured the premises of the crime scene and applied for a warrant to search the place legally.