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Federal drug case spotlights “poisonous tree” doctrine

We suspect that most of our readers in St. Louis and across Missouri and other states have a healthy respect for police officers driving anywhere near them on streets and freeways.

That is, motorists tend to immediately reduce their speed when they see a police car, almost as a knee-jerk reaction.

Here’s a question: Have you ever been pulled over after slowing down, even when the speed you were traveling at before letting off the gas was already legal?

We didn’t think so.

Yet that is precisely what happened to one driver in Michigan, who was stopped by an officer for – get this – traveling 53 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone.

If you suspect that there might have been a pretext for that stop (some deeper reason for the cop to want to have legal grounds to more closely interact with the motorist), you would be correct. The officer was alerted beforehand by federal law enforcers that drugs were likely in the vehicle and that they wanted it stopped and searched. His search turned up nothing, but a second search engaged in by other officers a short time later for other stated reasons did turn up several pounds of heroin.

Their efforts were for naught, owing to a clearly piqued federal judge who deemed the evidence inadmissible owing to the illegality of the first stop. The court ruled that the motorist’s conduct in no way invited closer police scrutiny and that, in fact, the officer caused the violation.

And, the judge duly noted, American motorists who drive two miles under a speed limit they were already obeying should not be stopped by cops.

Case result: The court’s ruling stressed that the initial stop violated the Constitution’s 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Owing to that, “the evidence obtained from the second stop … is inadmissible as fruit of the poisonous tree.”

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Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

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