Updated: Mar 17, 2021
This Article has been authored by Utkarsh Jha, a first year law student at National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.
The doctrine of “fruit of the poisonous tree” is a legal metaphor developed by the U.S. courts. The meaning of this doctrine is that the evidence, i.e. the “fruit”, is inadmissible if it is collected as a result of unlawful searches, seizures, arrests, detention, and forced questioning, i.e. the source of the “poisonous tree”. But the major question is what happens to the evidence obtained as a result of the violation of the criminal justice system, will it be admissible or inadmissible in the court of law, and what is the scope of this doctrine in India. In order to answer these questions, this article will go into greater detail of the exclusionary principle and the doctrine of fruits of the poisonous tree.
Understanding “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Doctrine
The crux of the doctrine of “fruit of the poisonous tree” is that if the basis of the proof i.e. the tree is flawed, then the same flaw exists in everything extracted from it i.e. the fruit. For instance, a police officer goes to a person's home when the person’s not there; so he just breaks down the door and starts looking around. He does not have a search warrant and no exception applies so it's a clear Fourth Amendment violation. While he's in the house he finds all kinds of evidence including a gun, a knife, drug paraphernalia, or some other illegal documents. So, in this case, under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine what is the poisonous tree and what is the fruit.
Here, the poisonous tree is the Fourth Amendment infringement itself; the search alone isn't inadmissible under the exclusionary law, but any evidence collected as a result of the breach is also going to be inadmissible. So even if the police officer goes in and finds a gun, knife, drug paraphernalia, or other illegal documents, all of that that he's picking from the tree and all of those fruits that he's obtaining is also going to be inadmissible.
“Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” doctrine has been derived from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The said doctrine is not only applied to taped or intercepted conversations but also to the evidence that has been procured through the use of facts that have been derived from such conversations. “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” was first used by Justice Frankfurter in the landmark case of Nardone v. United States. In this case, the court held that the testimony secured was in a manner that was violative of the Communication Act of 1934, and thus the convictions were overturned.
Since then, the doctrine has often been cited, be it in the case of Weeks v. United States or, in the case of Lumber Co. v. U.S. wherein the court had observed that if investigators find a key to a post office box containing a crucial document that could prove the defendant's guilt during an illegal search, this document will generally not be admissible as evidence in court proceedings as it is a product that has been obtained from an unlawful search. So, the document is the fruit of the poisonous tree.
Exclusionary Principle and Scope of this Doctrine in India
When compared to the United States, the Indian courts have had varying approaches towards this doctrine. In the United States, the Right to Privacy under the Fourth Amendment is strictly respected but there is no strict enforceability of the said doctrine in Indian law as of now. Indian courts have discretionary authority to allow the facts gathered by wiretapping, robbery, false conviction, sting operations, etc., as the Indian Evidence Act is extensive and, any fact is valid if that fact is crucial to the case. People in India are unaware of their legal rights and have to face police brutality, arbitrary arrest, and imprisonments. Even the first findings of the law commission reflected that the police were grossly misusing the authority to collect confessions or evidence, activities that continue to this day. Therefore, removing such facts during court proceedings becomes all the more relevant.
Provisions under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872
There is an entire chapter dedicated to the relevance of facts in the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, which signifies its relevance and shows that it is the primary criterion for determining the admissibility of evidence. It has been held by the Supreme Court that as long as the evidence is not affected by Section 24, Section 25, and Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, it would be admissible even though if it has been unlawfully collected.
Section 24 of the Indian Evidence Act says that the confession must not be obtained under any kind of inducement, threat, or promise. From the point of view of the victim, it must be understood whether a specific confession attracts Section 24 by seeing how the inducement, danger, or assurance from an individual of power will have an effect on the person’s mind. Any attempts by a person of power to intimidate a person into making a confession or any threat or intimidation will be invalidated at once if the anxiety already operates on his mind at the moment he confesses. The confession made by the accused person in police custody is inadmissible under Section 25 of the Act as it prohibits a statement made by the accused to the investigating officer in certain conditions, whether in jail or not. Section 26 goes further in-depth and states that a confession made to a third person, other than a police officer, by a person, while he is in police custody, is also inadmissible unless made in the immediate presence of a magistrate. The explanation is that a person in police custody is presumed to be under their influence and it provides opportunities for the confession to be induced or extorted, but a magistrate's presence is a safe ground and guarantees lawful confession. While Section 25 applies to confessions made to the police, Section 26 applies to confessions made to a person other than the police when in police custody. The accused's extra-judicial confession to a witness, while he is in police custody, is inadmissible in evidence and is affected by Section 26.
The Incorporation of “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Doctrine in the Indian Evidence Act
In the Indian Evidence Act, the aforementioned rule of exclusion has certain origins. It is evident from the rule of confession that a confession gained through a breach of the fundamental security guaranteed under human rights is not admissible as testimony in court. With regards to taking testimony from the convicted person, the Indian Evidence Act and the Constitution of India have certain laws. It is easily understandable that a statement that is not the product of our uninfluenced will not adhere to the facts. So, even a confession that is affected by external intervention from an inmate may sometimes be valid and sometimes not. The reliability of the evidence thus becomes questionable. Therefore, basing a man's guilt on such faulty evidence would not be consistent with the spirit of criminal jurisprudence.
The 94th Law Commission Report said that it is appropriate to reconsider this doctrine in the new legislation because of the rise in abuses of human rights and the extension of Article 21. The practice of wiretapping and illegal seizures are intrusive to human freedom and social standards. In the case of R.M Malkani v. State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court ruminate over the issue of whether the evidence that has been illegally procured, will be admissible in the court of law. In this case, a sting operation was being carried out, in which a telephonic conversation was being tapped. It was held that though it was not in consonance with the procedure of law and was also against the right against self incrimination i.e. the Article 20(3) of the Indian constitution, the evidence that was obtained was without any external force or undue influence and thus, it would be admissible in the court of law.
Even in the case of State of M.P Through CBI and Ors v. Paltan Mallah And Ors, it was observed that, even though the evidence is obtained through improper or illegitimate means, its admissibility is not precluded if it is otherwise relevant and if its genuineness is known. Also, while testing the efficacy and legitimacy of scientific assessments such as polygraph or narco-analysis, in Selvi vs. State of Karnataka, the Supreme Court had held that if unintended comments were granted weight during a trial, the investigators might feel encouraged to compel such statements often by tactics including intimidation, threats, inducement or manipulation.
This is the opinion the courts have taken in India. If the proof is admissible, how it has been collected does not matter. The “ends justify the means” which metaphorically means that “the tree may be poisonous but the fruit is good”. Herein, the consequentialist approach can be observed which is extremely disturbing. The fear of letting the accused disappear on account of a technicality can be seen to operate in Indian courts. Yet in doing so, the courts have set a very troubling precedent, because there is no longer any reason for police departments to comply with legal methods, much less strengthen them.
There is no legal restriction against the receipt of confessional remarks made to the police in testimony in developed countries such as the USA and the United Kingdom, where human rights are granted supremacy. But the situation in those nations cannot be equated to India. It is hard to deny the objective facts. It is irrefutable that police still use crude investigation methods, mainly in mofussil and rural areas, and suffer many handicaps such as lack of sufficient manpower and training facilities. Presently the position of this doctrine in India is unclear as the law does not explicitly prohibit it and after the right to privacy has been recognized as a fundamental right it can be said that the doctrine of “fruit of the poisonous tree” should be incorporated into the Indian legal system thus, making the illegally obtained evidence inadmissible in the court of law.