©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

In criminal procedure, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine states that evidence that is derived from an illegal stop or other illegally obtained evidence will be inadmissible in court under the exclusionary rule.  There may be hope for an otherwise bad case, though, when the evidence that the state seeks to introduce in court is sufficiently “attenuated” or disconnected from the initial illegal circumstance.  Thus, “attenuation” works to purge the taint of an otherwise unlawful search or stop.  In some circumstances, evidence may be sufficiently “attenuated” when an “intervening circumstance” occurs.  On January 27, 2012, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Gaines [i], which serves as an excellent example of the above principles.

The facts of Gaines are as follows:

On the afternoon of January 26, 2010, Baltimore City police officers Jimmy Shetterly, Frank Schneider, and Manuel Moro were in a marked police vehicle on patrol in the vicinity of Mosher Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, in Baltimore. The officers observed a white Ford Crown Victoria approaching Mosher Street on Pennsylvania Avenue from the opposite direction. Officer Moro, who was seated in the rear compartment of the police vehicle, later testified that as the Crown Victoria neared the Mosher Street intersection, he observed (from the other side of the intersection) a crack in the Crown Victoria’s windshield and informed the other officers.

Officers Schneider and Shetterly testified that after the Crown Victoria turned right onto Mosher Street, they followed in the police vehicle and also observed the crack in the windshield. The police activated their vehicle’s emergency lights and pulled over the Crown Victoria. In the course of the ensuing vehicle stop, Officer Shetterly observed Gaines (who was a passenger in the rear of the Crown Victoria) moving around in his seat and trying to climb over the front seats, despite commands to stop. Officer Shetterly then ordered Gaines to exit the vehicle and immediately began to pat him down.

As Officer Shetterly began to pat down Gaines in the area of Gaines’ waistband, the officer testified that “[a]s I was reaching with my right hand, I could feel the trigger guard and the handle of a firearm. At that time, I yelled ‘gun’ very loudly to alert the officers of the other present danger.” (J.A. 39.) Gaines then assaulted Shetterly, striking him in the face with his elbow. As Gaines turned to flee, Officer Shetterly clearly observed a silver firearm with a black handle in Gaines’ waistband. Gaines then punched Officer Schneider before he was subdued by the officers.

Officers Schneider and Shetterly pushed Gaines into the open trunk of the Crown Victoria as he continued to struggle. When the officers were eventually able to handcuff Gaines and pull him from the trunk, Officer Shetterly observed the firearm fall from Gaines’ waistband into the trunk. The police placed Gaines under arrest and seized the firearm, a .380 semi-automatic pistol. [ii]

Gaines filed a motion to suppress in district court.  The district court granted the motion and held that the gun was found during an unlawful stop because the court did not credit the officer’s testimony that they were able to observe a small crack in a windshield through rear, tinted window of Gaines car as it turned away from the officers in an intersection.  Thus, the district court held that the traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion so the gun was found during the course of an unlawful stop; therefore, suppress was warranted.

The government appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The government argued that even if the stop was illegal, the illegality was purged or attenuated when Gaines assaulted the officers.  Thus, the government continues that since the gun was not seized at the point the assault took place, the officers could arrest Gaines for the assault and seize the gun incident to the arrest, thereby purging the taint of the unlawful stop.

As such, the Fourth Circuit stated that the issue before them was:

Whether Gaines’ commission of a crime after discovery of the gun by police, but before its seizure, is an intervening circumstance sufficient to purge the taint of the admitted illegal search. [iii]

The Fourth Circuit then examined the general rule regarding intervening circumstances and attenuation.  The court stated:

To determine whether the derivative evidence has been purged of the taint of the unlawful search, we consider several factors, including: (1) the amount of time between the illegal action and the acquisition of the evidence; (2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603-04 (1975). [iv]

The government argued that Gaines’ assault on the officers was a sufficient intervening circumstance to purge the taint of the illegal stop.  In support of their argument, they cited a previous decision from the Fourth Circuit, the United States v. Sprinkle. [v]  The court stated

In Sprinkle, cited extensively by the parties, we analyzed similar (but not identical) facts and articulated what we described as “an exception to the exclusionary rule of ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine.” 106 F.3d at 619. In that case, police conducted an unlawful stop of a car in which Sprinkle was a passenger. Id. at 616. Sprinkle stepped out of the car, and officers began to conduct a pat down of his person. Id.Before any evidence was discovered in the pat down, Sprinkle pushed the officer away and took flight. Id. After running a short distance, Sprinkle pulled a handgun from his pants, continued to run, and eventually fired a shot at the pursuing officer. Id. Shortly thereafter, he was apprehended and the gun was seized. Id.

Facing charges for being a felon in possession of a firearm, Sprinkle sought suppression of the weapon. The district court granted Sprinkle’s motion to suppress the firearm, and the Government appealed. We reversed the district court, holding that “[i]f a suspect’s response to an illegal stop is itself a new, distinct crime, then the police constitutionally may arrest the suspect for that crime.” Id. at 619 (internal quotation marks, citation, and alteration omitted). In finding the exclusionary rule inapplicable, we explained that “[b]ecause the arrest for the new, distinct crime is lawful, evidence seized in a search incident to that lawful arrest is admissible.” Id. [vi]

The Fourth Circuit then analyzed the facts of Gaines’ case with Sprinkle.  The court noted that in Sprinkle, when the defendant drew and fired a gun at the officers, he committed a new crime that was distinct from any crime that he was suspected of at the time of the stop.  Thus, Sprinkle broke the causal chain between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the firearm in his case.  However, in Gaines, the court stated the causal chain which renders the evidence tainted, stayed intact.  This is because Gaines’ criminal assault on the officers (the alleged intervening act) took place after the officers discovered the firearm. [vii]

Thus, the court articulated the rule for this case as:

[W]here, as here, the discovery of the challenged evidence follows an unlawful search, but precedes an independent criminal act on the part of the defendant, that criminal act is not an intervening event for the purpose of determining whether the “taint” of the unlawful police action is purged. [viii]

Thus, the court held that Gaines’ assault on the officers was not a sufficient intervening event so as to purge the taint of the illegal stop in his case.

The Fourth Circuit also noted cases from the First and Sixth Circuit that support their conclusion in this case. [ix]
As such, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of the motion to suppress the firearm.


NOTE:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


[i] No. 11-4032, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 1492 (4th Cir. Decided January 27, 2012)

[ii] Id. at 2-3

[iii] Id. at 9

[iv] Id.

[v] 106 F.3d 613 (4th Cir. 1997)

[vi] Gaines at 10-11

[vii] Id. at 12

[viii] Id. at 14-15

[ix] Id. at 15 (see United States v. Camacho, 661 F.3d 718 (1st Cir. 2011); United States v. Beauchamp, 659 F.3d 560 (6th Cir. 2011))

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