Supreme Court of the United States
Fremont Weeks v. United States
Decided February 24, 1914 – 232 U.S. 383
Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the [unanimous] court:
The defendant was arrested by a police officer, so far as the record shows, without warrant, at the Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was employed by an express company. Other police officers had gone to the house of the defendant, and being told by a neighbor where the key was kept, found it and entered the house. They searched the defendant’s room and took possession of various papers and articles found there, which were afterwards turned over to the United States marshal. Later in the same day police officers returned with the marshal, who thought he might find additional evidence, and, being admitted by someone in the house, probably a boarder, in response to a rap, the marshal searched the defendant’s room and carried away certain letters and envelops found in the drawer of a chiffonier. Neither the marshal nor the police officer had a search warrant.
[The defendant filed a petition requesting return of his “private papers, books, and other property” and stating that the use of his personal items at trial would violate his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.]
***Upon the introduction of such papers during the trial, the defendant objected on the ground that the papers had been obtained without a search warrant, and by breaking open his home, in violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which objection was overruled by the court.
[The Court recounted the origin and history of the Fourth Amendment.]
The effect of the 4th Amendment is to put the courts of the United States and Federal officials, in the exercise of their power and authority, under limitations and restraints as to the exercise of such power and authority, and to forever secure the people, their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law. This protection reaches all alike, whether accused of crime or not, and the duty of giving to it force and effect is obligatory upon all intrusted under our Federal system with the enforcement of the laws. The tendency of those who execute the criminal laws of the country to obtain conviction by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions, the latter often obtained after subjecting accused persons to unwarranted practices destructive of rights secured by the Federal Constitution, should find no sanction in the judgments of the courts, which are charged at all times with the support of the Constitution, and to which people of all conditions have a right to appeal for the maintenance of such fundamental rights.
***If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the 4th Amendment, declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures, is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution. [emphasis added by editor] The efforts of the courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment, praiseworthy as they are, are not to be aided by the sacrifice of those great principles established by years of endeavor and suffering which have resulted in their embodiment in the fundamental law of the land. The United States marshal could only have invaded the house of the accused when armed with a warrant issued as required by the Constitution, upon sworn information, and describing with reasonable particularity the thing for which the search was to be made. Instead, he acted without sanction of law, doubtless prompted by the desire to bring further proof to the aid of the government, and under color of his office undertook to make a seizure of private papers in direct violation of the constitutional prohibition against such action. …To sanction such proceedings would be to affirm by judicial decision a manifest neglect, if not an open defiance, of the prohibitions of the Constitution, intended for the protection of the people against such unauthorized action.
We therefore reach the conclusion that the letters in question were taken from the house of the accused by an official of the United States, acting under color of his office, in direct violation of the constitutional rights of the defendant; that having made a seasonable application for their return, which was heard and passed upon by the court, there was involved in the order refusing the application a denial of the constitutional rights of the accused, and that the court should have restored these letters to the accused.
Notes, Comments, and Questions
A few years after deciding Weeks, the Court confronted an attempt by federal officials to avoid the new exclusionary rule. In Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920), federal agents raided an office unlawfully and seized books and records. After being ordered to return the illegally-gotten items, the government retained photographs and copies of some of the documents. Government lawyers then sought to subpoena the original documents (once again in the hands of their owners) on the basis of information learned while the documents were in the possession of federal agents. The Court reacted as follows:
“The proposition could not be presented more nakedly. It is that although of course its seizure was an outrage which the Government now regrets, it may study the papers before it returns them, copy them, and then may use the knowledge that it has gained to call upon the owners in a more regular form to produce them; that the protection of the Constitution covers the physical possession but not any advantages that the Government can gain over the object of its pursuit by doing the forbidden act.”
“The essence of a provision forbidding the acquisition of evidence in a certain way is that not merely evidence so acquired shall not be used before the Court but that it shall not be used at all. Of course this does not mean that the facts thus obtained become sacred and inaccessible. If knowledge of them is gained from an independent source they may be proved like any others, but the knowledge gained by the Government’s own wrong cannot be used by it in the way proposed.”
The rule stated in Silverthorne Lumber has sometimes been called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. The analogy is that if the evidence or knowledge obtained through the original constitutional violation is a poisonous tree, then evidence obtained as a result of that wrong is a poisonous fruit which must also be excluded from evidence. The case of Kyllo v. United States (Chapter 3) provides an example. If, as the Court found, the thermal imaging of Kyllo’s house was an unlawful search, then a search warrant obtained by officers who recited information learned during the illegal imaging could not justify the subsequent police entry into the house. The marijuana seized from Kyllo’s house was poisonous fruit of the thermal imaging.
In the next case, the Court considered whether to apply the rule of Weeks to state courts. The Court had already decided that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures were “incorporated” against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The issue was whether the exclusionary rule would also be imposed on the states.