U.S. First Circuit - The FindLaw 1st Circuit Court of Appeals News and Information Blog

Exclusionary Rule Exceptions Alive and Well in 1st Cir

Not all fruit that falls from a "poisoned" tree is without use, a recent First Circuit case reminds us. The First Circuit rejected Marcia Garcia-Aguilar's petition for review and affirmed the Bureau of Immigration Appeals' (BIA) and an Immigration Judge's finding that use of her birth certificate in establishing her alienage was not a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search.

Garcia's case is a gentle reminder that the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine is not an absolute bar to evidence that may have been improperly obtained.

Facts and Procedure

Garcia's case arose after agents of ICE raided a Michael Bianco, Inc. factory in Massachusetts and detained a number of allegedly undocumented immigrants including Garcia. Garcia was handcuffed with plastic zips and trucked away in a vehicle with blackened windows without being informed of her destination. At Fort Devens, ICE interrogated Garcia and recorded the information on a I-213 Form. Because of her detention, the Mexican Consulate produced her birth certificate to ICE.

At her removal proceedings, Garcia denied her notice's factual allegations. She later moved to suppose the I-213 Form, which was denied by the Immigration Judge. The IJ also concluded that even if officers had egregiously violated Garcia's constitutional rights, her birth certificate independently confirmed her alienage -- and thus her illegal status. She petitioned for review.

The Exclusionary Rule

Evidence obtained in violation of one's constitutional protections -- particularly the Fourth and Fifth Amendments -- must be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree" and excluded from the body of evidence. As is typically the case in the law, the story doesn't stop there.

The Ins and Outs of the Tree

Exceptions to the general rule apply to the facts at bar, said the First Circuit. Even if Garcia had established "egregious misconduct by ICE officers" (she didn't) she still would have failed to address the fact that her birth certificate independently was provided by the Mexican government. As the court noted, the Supreme Court had rejected, in Wong Sun v. United States, the notion that any and all evidence is "fruit of the poisonous tree" simply because some evidence "would not have come to light but for the illegal actions of police." In such cases, the government must have essentially used the illegality of the search to procure the evidence. 

ICE lucked out because while it was holding Garcia, the Mexican Consulate took its own initiative to send Garcia's birth certificate. Had the U.S. illegally requested that information, the case could have ended up differently. Garcia's undoing was sealed because her certificate independently appeared and was likely inevitable given the circumstances -- which had been purged of possible police contamination.

The ruling allowed the First Circuit to avoid the issues raised in Lopez-Mendoza. There, the Supreme Court ruled that the "tree" doctrine almost always does not apply to deportation proceedings, but left a "glimmer of home," the sometimes suppression would be allowed.

Moral of the Story

The "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine can only go so far to clothe information obtained in seemingly illegal fashion. Remind clients not to put too much misplaced faith in this famous doctrine in evidence law.

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