What Is the Exclusionary Rule in a Criminal Case?

The U.S. court system relies on the exclusionary rule to prevent law enforcement officers and other government officials from violating people’s constitutional rights. Under this rule, courts suppress any pieces of evidence obtained unconstitutionally, often through unlawful seizures or searches. As such, law enforcement officers need a search warrant, which is a judge-signed order authorizing them to search for specific materials or objects. The court may, however, exclude this rule when the exception can help a criminal case. What’s more, law enforcement officers can search without a warrant under certain lawful circumstances. 

Examples of When the Exclusionary Rule Is Applied 

Courts often apply the exclusionary rule to evidence obtained through an alleged offender’s constitutional rights violation. This rule also applies in criminal cases where the prosecutors present unlawfully obtained evidence during a trial.

An example is when a police officer stops you while crossing the street. The stop has no probable cause or reasonable suspicion, as the law requires. The officer searches you even though you have not broken any law, but the officer finds illegal drugs in your pocket during the search. The officer reads your Miranda rights and arrests you.

The drugs found in your pocket will not be admissible as evidence in court during your trial. The reason is that the officer obtained the item from you unlawfully. So, the rule will protect you from facing criminal charges for drug possession. Courts in Minnesota and the U.S. at large do not consider evidence obtained from an illegal search or seizure as evidence. 

Another example is an arrest at your property when no probable cause or reasonable suspicion exists. During the arrest, the officer searches your house and seizes your computer, claiming it was used to commit a federal crime. 

A federal criminal defense lawyer can present evidence and arguments that there were no legal grounds for the search and seizure during your trial. The court will exclude the illegally obtained evidence if your lawyer proves that the arresting officer obtained the personal computer unlawfully. 

What Is the Purpose of the Exclusionary Rule?

Evidence helps the court determine whether a suspect is guilty of an alleged criminal offense. As such, both parties involved in a criminal case must present tangible items to make arguments in their favor and against the other party. These tangible items may include DNA tests, documents, pictures, videos, expert witness testimony, or witness statements. 

While evidence helps the jury or judge understand a case’s circumstances, it cannot be used in court if obtained unlawfully. The court will determine whether the investigating officers gathered it in violation of your constitutional rights.

So, what is the exclusionary rule, and how does it apply to your case? The exclusionary rule is a court-driven rule that takes effect when evidence in a criminal case is unlawfully obtained. In your case, a court might use the exclusionary rule if the illegally obtained evidence helped the officers get other pieces of evidence they would not have found otherwise. 

The secondary evidence subject to the exclusionary rule is referred to as the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. The exclusionary rule borrows its reasoning from constitutional rights. So, it applies to criminal cases as a deterrent and remedy rather than a standalone constitutional right. 

Generally, the purpose of this rule is to prevent government officers from carrying out a search or seizure that violates people’s Fourth Amendment rights. Its goal is to offer legal remedies to suspects whose constitutional rights are infringed by unlawful searches or seizures. 

Courts, however, use certain exceptions to this rule in trials involving criminal cases. The exceptions are only valid when the remedial or deterrent benefits of the exclusionary rule are not as significant as the exclusion costs. 

Benefits of the Exclusionary Rule

One main benefit of this rule is that it mandates law enforcement officers to have substantial evidence of someone’s wrongdoing before conducting a search or seizure. Here is a breakdown of the benefits of applying this rule in a criminal case:

Innocence Is Assumed Before Guilt

The American justice system considers a defendant innocent until a judge or jury finds him or her guilty. For this reason, the prosecution team must present substantial evidence to argue that the defendant committed an offense or broke the law. 

The exclusionary rule favors the “innocent until proven guilty” notion, as it requires searches and seizures to be lawful. Law enforcement officers should not assume that a suspect is guilty when arresting the suspect or searching his or her property. 

Mandates the Justice System to Abide by the Law

Without the exclusionary rule, courts would not bar law enforcement officers from submitting unlawfully obtained evidence. As a result, innocent people may face criminal penalties. 

While the American justice system is independent of the federal and state government, it has to follow the law in its operations. Courts must consider the exclusionary rule, which borrows from Fourth Amendment rights, when ruling on criminal cases. 

Makes Probable Cause a Priority in Searches and Seizures 

Law enforcement officers need probable cause before arresting people or conducting searches or seizures. Probable cause can be a valid suspicion that a person has allegedly broken the law. 

So, officers must examine your actions to determine whether an arrest, search, or seizure will be necessary. This way, you will not be wrongfully accused of a crime.

Favors People’s Right to Privacy

Unlawful searches and seizures tend to infringe on people’s right to privacy. The rule helps reduce the number of cases where law enforcement officers enter people’s properties without a search warrant.

Minimizes the Risk of Manufactured Evidence

Under the exclusionary rule, evidence has to be obtained through proper channels to be admissible in court. The court requires prosecutors to document the evidence-gathering process for transparency reasons. If there is no paper trail for the evidence, it might be manufactured or fake.  

This rule prevents law enforcement officers from planting false evidence on suspects. If they do, the rule prevents them from using the items to open a criminal case. 

Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule

Courts have some exceptions to the exclusionary rule. The reason for these exceptions is that the rule is not a standalone constitutional right, but a supplement to Fourth Amendment rights. Exceptions to this rule include the following:

The Good Faith Exception 

Law enforcement officers can use a search warrant to search for illegal items on your property, even when the warrant is later proven to be invalid under this exception. So, they can use the items obtained from the search or seizure as evidence in your prosecution. 

Human error or lack of probable cause can invalidate the search warrant. Either way, if it was presented to you before it became invalid, the officers had legal grounds to carry out a search and seizure. 

Independent Source Doctrine

If law enforcement officers obtain evidence from you during an illegal search and seizure, they cannot use it to open a case against you. The law requires them to get a valid warrant for the search or seizure.

If they, however, come back with a valid warrant and find the same evidence, they can use the items to form the basis of your prosecution. The independent source doctrine allows items gathered from a warrantless search to be admissible in court if gathered again using a valid warrant. 

Attenuation Doctrine 

The court might allow unlawfully obtained evidence in your criminal trial if the connection between the unlawful search and the evidence is too vague. The attenuation doctrine allows the justice system to make this exception. 

The court will, however, consider the purpose of the unlawful search and seizure and the circumstances before applying this doctrine to your case. It will also examine the connection between illegal search or seizure and items obtained. 

Inevitable Discovery Doctrine

Under the inevitable discovery doctrine, prosecutors can use evidence from an illegal search and seizure to pursue a criminal case against you. However, they must prove that an independent investigator would have discovered the evidence if the illegal search and seizure did not occur. As such, your criminal charges will be based on the findings of the search, even if it was unlawful. 

Evidence Admissible for Impeachment

The court may make an exception to the exclusionary rule if the credibility of your testimony is in question during the trial. As such, the prosecutor can use the unlawfully gathered evidence to attack or impeach your testimony by citing that it lacks credibility. Courts will allow this as a truth-testing mechanism to prevent you from perjuring yourself. 

Qualified Immunity

Law enforcement officers use the qualified immunity exception to protect themselves against a potential lawsuit if the court applies the exclusionary rule to a criminal case. This way, you cannot bring a lawsuit against them if they violate your statutory or constitutional rights by carrying out an illegal search and seizure. Fortunately, however, the unlawfully obtained evidence will not be admissible in court. 

Understanding How a Search Warrant Works

When a judge signs a search warrant, law enforcement officers can search for particular materials or objects at a given location. But, they have to convince the judge that there is probable cause that the place they want to search hosts criminal activity. To make this argument, they must submit affidavits, which are written oath-driven statements stating observations about the crime. 

The suspected individual is usually absent when the judge or magistrate issues a search warrant. So, the suspect cannot ask the court to reconsider this decision. The law, however, allows the suspect to later on contest the validity of the warrant. 

What Law Enforcement Officers Can Search for or Seize With a Warrant 

A search warrant restricts law enforcement officers to search a specific location. It also allows them to seize any illegal items found on the property during the search, even if they are not on the warrant.

The officers will only limit the search to the individual mentioned in the warrant. They can, however, search other people on-site if a justifiable reason for doing so exist. A search warrant will not be necessary if the other parties are suspected of committing a crime. 

When Are Search Warrants Not Needed?

Police officers and other government officers are within their lawful duties to carry out searches or seizures without a warrant under certain circumstances. 

Search Connected to an Arrest

Police officers can search the suspect or the area where the suspect was found after an arrest without a warrant. The law also allows them to do a protective sweep of the area if they have a justifiable reason to believe that the arrestee’s accomplice is hiding there. 

Consent Searches

Law enforcement officers can perform a search without a warrant if you voluntarily and freely agree to a search. This exception will only apply to your case if the officers search the places you allowed them to search. 

Moreover, if the officers believe you have the power to consent, they will search your property without a warrant. Having the authority to consent can mean you are the lawful property owner. 

Stop and Frisk

Law enforcement officers can stop people suspected of committing crimes and frisk them for illegal items, such as unlicensed firearms. They can search the individuals if the stop and frisk form the basis for a lawful arrest. 

The Emergency Exception

Under the emergency exception rule, law enforcement officers can search someone or a property without a warrant if evidence may be lost or people’s safety is at risk. The law requires them to protect civilians and safeguard evidence during such situations. 

The Plain View Doctrine

Police officers can seize illegal items if they are easily visible, according to the plain view doctrine. The doctrine also allows them to search where illegal items were spotted if they have lawful reasons to be there. However, the officers need probable cause to believe the items are admissible as evidence before seizure. 

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

What to Do If You Have Been Charged with a Criminal Offense

One of the questions people facing a criminal charge ask is: How long does a criminal case take? The timeline of your criminal case in Minnesota will depend on the nature and severity of the alleged crime, the speed of the criminal justice system, the duration of the trial, and whether an appeal will be necessary. Delays at any stage of the criminal justice process may impact how long your criminal case will last. Generally, however, misdemeanor cases may resolve within weeks or months, while felony cases may linger in courts for up to a year.
People accused, arrested, or charged with a crime often ask, “How much does a criminal defense lawyer cost in Minneapolis, MN?” It is difficult to accurately determine how much a criminal defense lawyer will cost. The reason is that numerous factors impact the cost of legal representation in criminal matters. These factors include the type and severity of criminal charges, the lawyer’s experience and reputation, required time and effort, and geographical location.
Social media can have legal implications, particularly when it comes to criminal cases. Since its advent, social media has become a powerful tool for communication and self-expression. As of 2023, an estimated 4.9 billion people worldwide use social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to share thoughts, experiences, and moments from their lives. However, in this digital age, social media activity can be used as evidence in criminal cases in Minneapolis and elsewhere.