Colorado Supreme Court: Go Ahead, Eat The Fruit

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled today that evidence which is the fruit of a statement obtained in violation of a criminal defendant’s Miranda rights may be admitted into evidence.  This issue is unresolved nationally, and leaves Colorado’s Supreme Court taking a tough on crime position despite its liberal reputation.

The result of this ruling may be a new incentive for police to intentionally violate a defendant’s Miranda rights, knowing that the statements obtained won’t be admissible in court, in order to develop leads useful in gathering further evidence in a case.When police make a warrantless search without probable cause in violation of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the exclusionary rule of criminal procedure keeps that evidence out of court.  The exclusionary rule also keeps out the “fruit of the poisonous tree”, i.e. evidence only gathered because of the tip provided by the illegal search.

A similar rule excludes statements of a defendant by police made after he has clearly asked for an attorney.  This is intended to bolster the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination and the 6th Amendment right to an attorney in criminal cases.  It is one way that Miranda warning rights are enforced.  This discourages police from trying to get a reluctant defendant who has asked for an attorney from intentionally delaying in the hope of getting the defendant to talk to them and confess anyway.

But, what if after a defendant has asked for an attorney, the defendant isn’t provided with an attorney and keeps talking anyway. And, what if he then confesses to the crime or provides tips to police that allow them to break the case?  It turns out that this happens a lot.  The law is clear that the jury can’t hear the confession or statement itself.  But, must the evidence that the police are pointed to based upon the statement also be kept out of the court?  The law hasn’t been definitive on that point until today in Colorado.

Colorado’s Supreme Court today said that evidence obtained a result of information acquired in an illegally obtained statement can be used against a criminal defendant at trial, even though the statement itself cannot be used against him.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes clear that the fruit of “coerced statements” (e.g. torture) cannot be used against a criminal defendant at trial.  But the admissability of the fruit of evidence secured based upon statements obtained merely as a result of failing to provide an attorney after a criminal defendant has requested one, has not been squarely addressed by the high court, although it has been tenatively explored in “dicta” (i.e. side comments in a case where that issues is not actually presented).

Notably, the Colorado court did not rest its ruling on any Colorado specific law, so it was ruling on a purely federal question.  As a result, this case, People v. Bradshaw, is a plausible candidate for U.S. Supreme Court review at some point.  The U.S. Supreme Court has seriously considered taking similar cases in recent years, and has shown interest in the related issue of the admissibility of the fruits of an illegally obtained (indeed coerced) confession of someone other than the defendant in a case, but it has not issued an opinion on the merits of this issue.

It is also worth noting as an aside that the Colorado Supreme Court’s two conservatives, Justices Coats and Eid joined in a dissent written by Coats agreeing on the fruits of the poisonous tree ruling, but disagreeing with the suppression of a statement made in violation of Miranda (they felt that the request for an attorney wasn’t as clear as the majority did), that relied on no less of a foreign legal authority than Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Coats cited Confucius for the point that sometimes people may agree on a statement of general principles (as the dissent did with the majority) and yet disagree in their understanding of what those general principles mean in practice.