‘Even so every good tree bringeth: forth good fruit; but a corrupt: tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.’

~Matthew 7:17-18

A doctrine or a legal metaphor?

The ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine was perhaps a gift from the seventeenth and eighteenth verses of the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. It is a legal metaphor in the United States criminal justice system, which prohibits the admission of evidence (fruit) procured from illegal arrests, seizures, coercion (poisonous tree). This doctrine was first indicated in Boyd v. United States (MANU/USSC/0306/1886) where illegal forfeiture of the party’s property was repugnant to 4th and 5th amendment rights. However, the actual phrase was coined by J. Frankfurter in Nardone v. United States, where the Court reversed the convictions since the manner in which the evidence was secured was violative of the Communications Act of 1934 and hence a substantial case against the accused was a ‘fruit of the poisonous tree.’ The doctrine has been frequently invoked since then, including in the case of Weeks v. United States, which shed light on the principle of ‘every man’s house is his castle’ and held that rummaging through his papers and books in his absence is a gross contradiction of his 4th amendment rights.

This doctrine is completely distinct from the exclusionary principle used in India and the United States itself. Envision a scenario where the police officers learn about the existence of drugs at a certain place from a witness they knew about because of a statement during illegal arrest. While the statement itself would be excluded from the prosecution’s case, the fruits borne from the statement, that is, the drugs would be inadmissible as well. This was the exact factual matrix of the Wong Sun v. United States case (MANU/USSC/0193/1963) and the Supreme Court dismissed all the evidences germinating from the illegal arrest.

The judicial reasoning behind these verdicts has been simple- the right of privacy envisaged under the 4th Amendment cannot be corrupted. Police/law officers have to be deterred from acting high-handedly and marring the Constitutional rights of the citizens. J. Holmes even opined that ‘it is a lesser evil that some criminals escape than that the Government should play an ignoble part.’ Today, the doctrine, however, has metamorphosed into a doctrine preventing police misconduct rather than the rights of citizens. This piece intends to probe into the significance of this doctrine and its adaptation in the Indian context.

The Exclusionary Principle in India

As of now, the doctrine does not have any parallels in India. Courts are at complete liberty to admit evidences obtained through wiretapping, theft, wrongful arrest etc. If a certain piece of information is relevant, has strong probative value and is admissible as under Chapter II of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, the Court will take it into cognizance. In fact, relevancy has such a bearing on admission that if a piece of evidence is largely relevant, chances are, it will get admitted. Hence, the source (poisonous tree) will cease to make a difference before the Judge. The Indian approach can really be summed up in the following statement:

‘Judges are not responsible for the bringing or abandonment of prosecutions. Save in the very rare situation, which is not this case, of an abuse of process of the court…the judge is concerned only with the conduct of the trial.’

This outlook can be examined through multiple cases which have arisen in this context. In Kuruma v. The Queen and R.M Malkani v. State of Maharashtra(MANU/SC/0204/1972), relevancy was placed on a higher pedestal than the source and hence information obtained through illegally recorded tapes was deemed as admissible evidence. In 1974, the Supreme Court was posed an intriguing case- whether illegal searches and seizures to investigate tax evasion through stolen accounting books violated Article 19(1)(f) and (g) of the Constitution. The Court dismissed the petition while reiterating that nothing in the Indian Constitution or other law prohibits the admission of evidence obtained illegally and therefore the result (fruit) of the seizure cannot be shut out.  Judges have increasingly been reluctant to go beyond the purview of the Evidence Act, often citing the case of Lekhraj v. Mahipal which deems the Code to be exhaustive. Unfortunately, the Indian courts have used outdated English precedents to exclude the evidence obtained in an illegal search. For instance, today the UK has ‘The Unfair Operation Rule’ wherein evidences extracted by being unfair to the accused can be excluded. This is a discretionary power vested in the judges. In India, as of 2013 [Umesh Kumar v. State of Andhra Pradesh](MANU/SC/0904/2013), it is largely settled that even if a document is procured through unlawful means, its admissibility would not get marred.

Adopting this doctrine: Need of the hour

There are four principles which enunciate as to why evidence obtained through egregious means should not be admitted: First, the reliability principle which mandates the admission of evidences solely through their reliability. Statements extracted through threats, inducements, torture are likely to be unreliable. A prime example of this is the fallible statements given by the teenagers in the Central Park Joggers Case.

The second is that disciplinary principle encourages Court to discourage improper practices during the investigation stage. Courts can make use of the power vested in them by refusing to admit such evidences thereby making these practices redundant.

The Protective Principle provides safeguards for the individual’s rights and liberties. The Rome Statute endorses this principle invalidating evidences obtained through coercion or torture. Even though India is not a party to the Convention, these principles are of much consequence for criminal trials.

The fourth principle is the Judicial Integrity Principle, which implores the Courts to prohibit improper conduct by accepting tainted evidences. The fact that our Courts continue to give leverage to relevancy and not the method of procurement shatters the trust we repose in the courts for preserving a just procedure designed to protect fundamental rights.

Let us be cognizant of the fact that application of this doctrine might free the guilty. However, it is integral to accord respect to the rights of accused against the rights of public security. Even the 1st Law Commission Report reflected that there is a gross misuse of power by the police to extract statements or evidences. In India, people are largely unaware of their legal rights and hence find themselves gullible to this police brutality, abuse, unlawful arrest. It becomes all the more important to wean out such evidences during court trials.

The current law must undergo a change in the light of the Puttaswamy  judgment (MANU/SC/1054/2018). Even English courts are beginning to strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the adverse effects of violating fundamental rights like that of privacy and liberty. Now, the Courts have complete autonomy to exclude evidence under Section 5 by weighing it against Article 21 of the Constitution. The 94th Law Commission Report admits that due to increased stress on human rights and this expansion of Article 21 makes it imperative to rethink this doctrine into the current statute. Further, a statute must be in place which reassures the public that their civil liberties shall be honored at all times. The act of wiretapping, unlawful seizures are invasive to human dignity and social values which are so crucial to a fair criminal justice system. With the privacy judgment in place, Section 5 must be read with Article 20 and 2, lest we continue permitting the statute to contradict those fundamental rights which are so dear to the Constitution.

By Priyanka Preet

This article was first published in the Blog namely The Criminal Law Blog