You went to Las Vegas with your friends, just taking a week to get away from it all. There were four of you sharing a hotel room.
At first, you were having a great time: staying out late, enjoying the casinos and entertainment, and really just forgetting about work and the stress of real life. It was exactly the break that you needed.
Then your stress shot up to a whole new level. The police came into the hotel room while you were out. They found drug paraphernalia in the closet, with your car keys. That led them to your car, where they found drugs. They arrested you, and now you're facing serious drug charges that could wind up derailing your career.
How did all of this happen?
As you start going over things, you realize that there's one key question you must have answered: Why were the police in your hotel room to begin with?
Remember, in most cases, they need a warrant to come in. They can't just swing by and poke around until they find something. They must first have a valid reason to get a legal warrant and then use that warrant to gain access to your private space.
Did they have one? If they didn't, it's time to learn more about a doctrine known as the "fruit of the poisonous tree."
Essentially, this doctrine starts with the fact that police can't illegally obtain evidence. Under the Fourth Amendment, a search carried out without a warrant is illegal in most cases. Exceptions include things like concern from the officers that evidence is being destroyed. But, in the vast majority of situations, they need a warrant.
What is the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine?
If they do illegally obtain evidence -- entering your hotel room without a warrant and finding the drug paraphernalia -- then the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine says that other evidence related to that breach of your rights was also unlawfully obtained. Police can't use it in court.
In this example, if the paraphernalia was illegally found with your keys, and that led to the search of your car, the drugs they found in your car also can't be used in court.
So, due to this oversight by the officers, they would now have to bring a case for drug possession against you without the drug paraphernalia, the car keys or the drugs themselves as evidence. As you can imagine, it's going to be pretty hard for them to get the charges to stick.
It's critical to know what your legal rights are when you're facing charges. People sometimes assume that the police must be in the right because they are the authority figures, but you have civil rights that trump police action. Be aware of how they may factor into any case.