illegally seized evidence | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Procedural Law

Illegally seized evidence refers to any evidence obtained by law enforcement officers or government officials in violation of an individual’s constitutional rights, such as the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Let’s start by simplifying the term: illegally seized evidence. It means evidence that police or other government officials have collected in a way that breaks the law.

The Fourth Amendment

One law often involved is the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment gives people the right to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures. When police search someone’s home, car, or person, or take their property, they must do it in a reasonable way. What does reasonable mean? In many cases, it means they need to have a warrant. A search warrant is a legal document signed by a judge that gives the police permission to search or seize property.

Evidence Without a Warrant

If the police don’t have a warrant, any evidence they seize might be illegal. For example, let’s say the police break into a house without a warrant and find stolen goods. Those goods could be considered illegally seized evidence. The same could be true if they stop a car without good reason and find drugs in the trunk.

Invalid Warrants

Even if police have a warrant, the evidence can still be illegal if the warrant is invalid. For instance, a warrant might be invalid if it’s based on false information, if it doesn’t describe the place to be searched accurately, or if the judge who signed it wasn’t impartial.

Violations of Miranda

Illegally seized evidence also includes confessions or statements that were forced or coerced. For example, if the police use physical violence or threats to make someone confess, that confession could be illegal. Similarly, if the police question a suspect without first giving them a Miranda warning, any statement they get might also be illegal. The Miranda warning informs suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning.

Exclusionary Rule and Illegally Seized Evidence

So, what happens when evidence is seized illegally? In general, it can’t be used in court against a defendant. This principle is known as the exclusionary rule. It was established by the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that individuals’ rights are respected and to deter police from breaking the law. If the police know that illegally seized evidence can’t be used, they have a strong incentive to follow the law.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

Another important rule related to illegally seized evidence is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. This doctrine says that if the source (the “tree”) of the evidence is tainted, then anything gained (the “fruit”) from it is tainted as well.

For instance, let’s say the police illegally search a house and find a map of a hidden stash of drugs. They then use the map to find the drugs. The drugs, like the map, might be considered illegally seized evidence, even though the police found them in a different location.


To sum it up, illegally seized evidence refers to any evidence that’s collected in violation of the law, particularly the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This can include evidence seized without a warrant or with an invalid warrant, coerced confessions, and any evidence obtained without a proper Miranda warning. Such evidence is usually not admissible in court, thanks to the exclusionary rule and the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. These rules help uphold the integrity of the justice system and protect individuals’ rights.

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Last Modified: 05/22/2023

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