Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States 251 U.S. 385 (1920)

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Silverthorne was the first case to test the scope of the exclusionary rule, formulated in weeks v. united states (1914), requiring exclusion from a federal trial of evidence obtained in an unconstitutional search.

Federal officers searched the Silverthorne Company's office; "without a shadow of authority," in Justice oliver wendell holmes's words, they "made a clean sweep of all the books, papers, and documents found there." Compounding the "outrage," the records were copied and photographed, and an indictment was framed on the basis of the information uncovered. The district court ordered the return of the originals but allowed the copies to be retained by the government, which then subpoenaed the originals. The Supreme Court reversed.

Holmes asserted that to allow the government to use the derivatively acquired evidence would mean that "only two steps are required [to render the evidence admissible] instead of one. In our opinion such is not the law. It reduces the 4th Amendment to form of words." Holmes added: "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, but that it shall not be used at all." On this principle, an admission made by a suspect while he is under illegal arrest, as in wong sun v. united states (1963), like a lead furnished by an illegally placed wiretap, as in nardone v. united states (1939), may not be introduced into evidence because it is directly derived from an unlawful act. In Nardone, Justice felix frankfurter dubbed the doctrine of the Silverthorne case as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

Jacob W. Landynski

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Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States 251 U.S. 385 (1920)

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