Fruits Of Poisonous Tree – Doctrine


“Fruits of poisonous tree” is a legal doctrine that invalidates evidence obtained unlawfully. This allegory signifies the following: fruits mean shreds of evidence obtained, tree is the medium through which the evidence is obtained and the word ‘poisonous’ is a metaphor for ‘unlawful’.  Evidence obtained from a tree that is not poisonous is only acceptable in the legal field whereas a piece of evidence obtained from a poisonous tree is not acceptable because it is tainted with poison i.e. it is obtained unlawfully.  The origin of this doctrine dates back to 1920 when it was first described in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United State[1]. The term for this doctrine was coined by Justice Felix Frankfurter in Nardone v. the United States[2]. This doctrine is parallel to the fourth, fifth and sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights. These amendments are about unlawful search and seizures, protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination and right to counsel. There are possibilities of instances wherein cops obtain evidence by administering unlawful means via misconduct, to curb this we have ‘the exclusionary rule’. This rule acts as an extension of the abovementioned doctrine.  An exclusionary rule is also sometimes called a prophylactic rule since its motto is to foster the constitutional rights of a citizen. This was laid down in Miranda v. Arizona[3]. Despite the instances where the doctrine offers protection to the offenders, poisoned evidence is admissible in a court of law if it was found as part of an independent source; if it was to be inevitably found irrespective of circumstances; if there is a very remote causation between evidence obtained and the illegal means administered;  if it comes under the ambit of good-faith exception. Fruits of a poisonous tree cannot be justified to be legal unless it is covered by the canopy of exceptions mentioned. This doctrine takes into consideration the fact that offenders are also human beings and every sinner has a future. Thereby, it protects them by giving them the right to protest against the shreds of evidence obtained unlawfully.


This doctrine originally emanated from the United States. As stated already, it is similar to the exclusionary rule but it’s not the same. The difference lies in the fact that the doctrine is an extension of the rule and it disallows pieces of evidence that springs from primary illegality. It is a form of judicial remedy designed to safeguard the Fourth Amendment to the Bill Of Rights.  This doctrine along with the rule gives power to other similar Amendments as well. Having said that, let’s have a look into the wordings of the Fourth Amendment and figure the link between the rule and the Amendment to get a complete picture of this doctrine.

Fourth Amendment:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,  against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

the Fourth Amendment talks about the right of the people against unreasonable search and seizures and this is where the exclusionary rule plays its part relating to evidence obtained from such unreasonable searches.  This rule came into existence six years before the fruits of poisonous tree doctrine in the case, Weeks v. U.S[4]. The court held, every man’s house is his castle” and linked it to the Fourth Amendment. The same rule was also applied in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United State[5]. The United States Supreme Court has decided several cases in this matter. The rule and the doctrine are like the two sides of a coin. A stringent version of the rule is the doctrine.  In the case of United States v. Rey[6], it was stated “for the exclusion of evidence to be ordered, the police misconduct must have been “sufficiently deliberate” that future similar conduct would be deterred due to the exclusion and that such future deterrence would be worth the cost to the justice system.” Another landmark judgment in this aspect was made in Mapp v.Ohio[7]. A very interesting conclusion that can be drawn from this doctrine is the interlinking and interdependence of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment along with the Sixth Amendment. This doctrine directs the rights of an offender to a greener side in the United States and it is backed by loads of Judicial precedents.


The fruits of poisonous tree doctrine do not play an active role in the Indian Judiciary. The relevancy of evidence matters more than the source of it. Evidence obtained by unlawful means does not make the same inadmissible since it is completely governed by section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. The privy council held in Kuruma v. The Queen, “test of admissibility lies in its relevancy and not how it was obtained.” The Supreme Court relied on the same principle in Pooran Mal v. Director Inspection[8]. The sole principle behind Indian law in this regard is that if there’s any evidence to prove one’s guilt or innocence then attention is placed only on that and not on the source from where it was obtained. Our constitution is a beautiful painting representing the triumph of not just its own but world countries. Similar is its statutory laws and in that aspect, it still relies on the verdict of English Courts. In R.v. Leathem[9], the Court held, “It matters not how you get it; if you steal it even, it would be admissible in evidence.” This is the principle enshrined in the Law of Evidence.  The relevancy of evidence depends on the peculiar facts and circumstances in every case[10]. The exclusion of this doctrine can be seen to the extent that Court has allowed stealing of evidence to prove the innocence of another[11]. In State of Maharashtra v. NatwarlalDamodardas Soni[12], the illegal raid was held to be admissible in the court law. Another point to be noted, the evidence is considered to be admissible even if certain rules of evidence were not followed[13].Attorney General, K.K Venugopal argued that stolen official documents should not be taken cognizance by the Courts since it could be a crime under the Official Secrets Act, 1923. However, Justice Sanjay Kaul  stated, “even if the Attorney General’s argument were correct, any evidence would be admissible if it would shock the conscience of the court.” The constitution protects against self-incrimination and double jeopardy similar to the Fifth Amendment in the United States, Right to counsel is also mentioned as an implied right. A landmark judgment in the avenue of self incrimination was pronounced in Selvi v State of Karnataka[14].  The protection guaranteed by the Constitution to the offenders effectively comes into when there is sheer violation of Article 20, 21 and 22. Evidence acquired by illegal means is admissible but that does not open doors for evidence obtained under duress or undue influence. In that line, to safeguard the constitutional right under Article 20, there’s a judge developed doctrine called the “unfair operation principle”. This principle postulates that admissibility of evidence can be excluded at the trial Judge’s discreation if it operates unfairly against a defendant. This could be said as an Indian version of exclusionary rule. The right to privacy judgment has widened the sphere of admissibility of evidence by adding a new dimension -privacy. Exploration of sections 5 and 6 of the Indian evidence Act, 1872 along with the res gestate doctrine (start-to-end period of a felony; the admissibility of evidence which relates to a particular case) stresses the inadmissibility of evidence if it absolutely violates the privacy of an individual.[15] The Indian Judiciary has the utmost difficult duty of striking a balance between the rights of an offender and the admissibility of evidence.

[1] 251 U.S. 385 (1920)

[2] 308 U.S. 338 (1939)

[3] 384 U.S. 436 (1966)

[4] 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

[5] supra

[6] 502 U.S. 164 (1991)

[7] 367 U.S. 643 (1960)

[8] 1974 AIR 348, SCR (2) 704

[9] (1861) 8 Cox CC 498

[10] Dharambir Khattar v. Union of India;

[11] R.M. Malkani v. the State of Maharashtra; 1973 AIR 157, 1973 SCR (2) 41

[12] AIR 1975 SC 182

[13] Bai Radha vs the State Of Gujarat;1970 AIR 1396, SCR (2) 799

[14] AIR 2010 SC 1974

[15] Justice k.s. puttaswamy (retd.) v. union of india citation; WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO 494 OF 2012

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