Saturday, August 22, 2009

THE POISON TREE (On Inadmissible evidence)

By Obiter07

The Supreme Court has used this phrase “fruit of the poisonous tree” in a number of cases. It is not an agricultural term, but something that was coined with respect to the inadmissibility of evidence illegally obtained. It is a legal doctrine that serves to enforce the prohibition against illegal searches and seizures as enshrined in the Constitution.

Sections 1, 2 and 3 of Art. III of the Constitution read:

“Section 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law …

SEC. 2. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge. . .

SEC. 3. . . .

(2) Any evidence obtained in violation of this or the preceding section shall be inadmissible for any purpose in any proceeding. . ..”

So what is this tree and why is its so- called fruit poisonous? As held in EJERCITO vs. SANDIGANBAYAN, et al. [G.R. Nos. 157294-95. November 30, 2006.]:

“The "fruit of the poisonous tree" principle, which states that once the primary source (the "tree") is shown to have been unlawfully obtained, any secondary or derivative evidence (the "fruit") derived from it is also inadmissible, xxx”

This means that any evidence that is to be used against the accused must have been obtained through legitimate means. Anything that can be traced to an unlawful search or seizure may not be used as evidence against the accused. How does this work in practical terms?

Case samples

In VALDEZ vs. PEOPLE [G.R. No. 170180. November 23, 2007.], the factual milieu was as follows:

“Bautista testified that at around 8:00 to 8:30 p.m. of 17 March 2003, he was conducting the routine patrol along the National Highway in Barangay San Benito Norte, Aringay, La Union together with Aratas and Ordoño when they noticed petitioner, lugging a bag, alight from a mini-bus. The tanods observed that petitioner, who appeared suspicious to them, seemed to be looking for something. They thus approached him but the latter purportedly attempted to run away. They chased him, put him under arrest and thereafter brought him to the house of Barangay Captain Orencio Mercado (Mercado) where he, as averred by Bautista, was ordered by Mercado to open his bag. Petitioner's bag allegedly contained a pair of denim pants, eighteen pieces of eggplant and dried marijuana leaves wrapped in newspaper and cellophane. It was then that petitioner was taken to the police station for further investigation.”

The Court, in acquitting the accused made a number of findings in disallowing the evidence against him. The evidence against the accused may only be admissible if incident to a lawful arrest. None of the circumstance where an arrest without warrant is lawful was found to obtain in the case at bar.[1]

The accused has just alighted from the bus. Even if it were true that he ran from the tanods, flight is not synonymous with guilt. “It is not unreasonable to expect that petitioner, walking the street at night, after being closely observed and then later tailed by three unknown persons, would attempt to flee at their approach.” Under the circumstances, “petitioner's flight lends itself just as easily to an innocent explanation as it does to a nefarious one.”

The accused has the right “to be secure against any unreasonable searches on and seizure of his own body and any deprivation of his liberty being a most basic and fundamental one, the statute or rule that allows exception to the requirement of a warrant of arrest is strictly construed. Its application cannot be extended beyond the cases specifically provided by law."

The same legal principle was relied upon in another case where the accused was accosted as he alighted from a ship and his personal effects searched [PEOPLE vs. AMINNUDIN, G.R. No. 74869. July 6, 1988.]. The authorities had every opportunity to secure a warrant to arrest and search but failed to do so. They had advanced knowledge of his identity and even the ship he was to board and seized him based on the “furtive finger” of an informant. There was no basis for a warrantless arrest and therefore no basis for the ensuing search and seizure of the marjiuana he was allegedly carrying.

Without the evidence of the marijuana seized from the accused, there is no basis for the charge against him. That evidence cannot be admitted since it is “the fruit of the poisonous tree, to use Justice Holmes' felicitous phrase.” The search was not an incident of a lawful arrest because there was no warrant of arrest and the warrantless arrest did not come under the exceptions allowed by the Rules of Court. Hence, the warrantless search was also illegal and the evidence obtained thereby was inadmissible.

The Court stated that those “who are supposed to enforce the law are not justified in disregarding the rights of the individual in the name of order. Order is too high a price for the loss of liberty. As Justice Holmes, again, said, "I think it a less evil that some criminal should escape than that the government should play an ignoble part."

Warrantless Searches

There are recognized exceptions where “a search may be validly made without warrant and articles may be taken validly as a result of that search.” These include “a warrantless search … made incidental to a lawful arrest, as when the person being arrested is frisked for weapons he may otherwise be able to use against the arresting officer. Motor cars may be inspected at borders to prevent smuggling of aliens and contraband and even in the interior upon a showing of probable cause. Vessels and aircraft are also traditionally removed from the operation of the rule because of their mobility and their relative ease in fleeing the state's jurisdiction. The individual may knowingly agree to be searched or waive objections to an illegal search. And it has also been held that prohibited articles may be taken without warrant if they are open to eye and hand and the peace officer comes upon them inadvertently. ROAN vs. GONZALES, et al. [G.R. No. 71410. November 25, 1986.]”

But arms seized after a shoot-out from a compound cannot be used in evidence against the accused where soldiers raided a compound in search of loose firearms, ammunition and explosives [RIZAL ALIH, et al. vs. CASTRO, et al., G.R. No. L-69401. June 23, 1987]. The search cannot be justified based on the receipt of “superior orders” which cannot countermand the Constitution. The Court adverted to U.S. Supreme Court in Ex parte Milligan:

"The Constitution is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government.


“It is no exaggeration that the basest criminal, ranged against the rest of the people who would condemn him outright, is still, under the Bill of Rights, a majority of one.”

The respondents had every opportunity to get a search warrant from the courts but failed to do so. This failure makes the arms seized inadmissible as evidence in any proceeding against the accused. The Court made a statement how a man’s home is his castle:

"It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may enter; the rain may enter. But the King of England may not enter. All the forces of the Crown dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."

However, the Court did allow the arms to be kept in custody pending a determination of their legality.

One may ask why the accused should go free despite an illegal search if illegal arms and drugs are found nonetheless. In the same aforecited case, the Court relayed Judge Learned Hand’s observation: "Only in case the prosecution which itself controls the seizing officials, knows that it cannot profit by their wrong, will the wrong be repressed."

[1] Under present Rules, an arrest without a warrant may only be made in the following instances:

“Sec. 5. Arrest without warrant; when lawful. – A peace officer or a private person may, without a warrant, arrest a person:

(a) When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;

(b) When an offense has just been committed and he has probable cause to believe based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances that the person to be arrested has committed it; and

(c) When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment or place where he is serving final judgment or is temporarily confined while his case is pending, or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another. xxx”[ Rule 113]


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