Motion to Suppress Evidence in Washington DC

What is a Motion to Suppress Evidence?

A motion to suppress evidence involves a defendant asking the court for certain evidence to be excluded from being presented at trial. 

The basis for the exclusion of the evidence is typically rooted in the United States Constitution, a state constitution, or a statute that allows for evidence to be excluded. The motion is usually made prior to trial, unless the defendant was not aware of the grounds for the motion or the opportunity did not exist to make the motion (see D.C. Code § 23-104).

A defendant may waive an issue regarding suppressing evidence if he or she fails to make the motion, unless an exception applies. Furthermore, if a party moves to suppress evidence on certain grounds, the party does not preserve claims that the evidence should be suppressed on different grounds (Walker v. United States).

What are Examples of Evidence that Could be Suppressed?

Examples of evidence that could be suppressed include an illegally obtained confession; items, such as drugs and weapons, seized as a result of an illegal search; results from scientific tests, including blood alcohol tests; financial records; witness testimony; and photographs. 

What Happens if a Motion to Suppress Evidence is Successful?

If a motion to suppress is successful, then that means the judge granted the motion. Therefore, the evidence will not be presented at trial, and neither the defense nor the prosecution will be allowed to reference it during the trial. Furthermore, a successful motion to suppress evidence means that the jury will never hear that evidence and will therefore never learn about that information.

If enough evidence or piece(s) of evidence particularly important to the prosecution’s case are successfully suppressed, then the case may be dismissed before it even goes to trial. This would likely occur because, without the suppressed evidence, the prosecution would not have enough evidence to prove its case at trial. This is often referred to as a dispositive motion by the court. Given the possibility that a case could be dismissed prior to trial due to a successful motion to suppress evidence, these can be issues of particular importance to raise.

There are certain limited circumstances, though, where evidence obtained illegally could potentially be allowed to be used at trial. One such example is the inevitable discovery doctrine, which entails the prosecution showing that the evidence would have inevitably been legally discovered anyway.

How is the Fourth Amendment Related to Motions to Suppress Evidence?

While motions to suppress evidence can be filed for other reasons, motions related to illegal searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment are common. According to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, people have the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Therefore, if evidence is acquired unreasonably, then it may be suppressed if an appropriate motion is made.

Motions to suppress evidence made under the Fourth Amendment can be based on the exclusionary rule. These motions seek to exclude evidence from trial that was obtained in a way that violates the defendant’s constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures. Such evidence may be excluded from trial if the defense makes the motion to suppress that evidence and can prove the violation of the law (see Simmons v. United States).

The exclusionary rule, however, may not always apply. For example, there is a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. As in United States v. Leon, evidence would not be subject to the exclusionary rule if the evidence was obtained in a reasonable and good-faith reliance on a valid search warrant that was later deemed to be defective in some way.

The burden of proof depends upon the circumstances of the illegal search. The party bringing the motion will usually have to establish that the search and/or seizure violated his or her Fourth Amendment rights (see United States v. Jones). If there is a validly obtained search warrant, then the burden of proof is on the defense to prove that the evidence obtained during that search was seized illegally.

Since warrantless searches are presumed illegal, however, the prosecution has the burden to prove in such a case that the search was indeed legal and that the evidence can be used at trial. The government does not need to prove the defendant’s guilt, as it just needs to prove that the evidence was legally obtained.

What are Some Examples of Cases Discussing Motions to Suppress Evidence?

An example of a recent Supreme Court case that discusses a motion to suppress evidence is Mitchell v. Wisconsin, where the police arrested Mr. Mitchell for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Mr. Mitchell could not indicate his consent or understanding regarding the state’s implied consent law (that says that motorists consent to certain chemical tests, including blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tests, just by operating a vehicle).

The hospital took Mr. Mitchell’s blood at the request of the police, despite the lack of a warrant to run the BAC test. Mr. Mitchell moved to suppress the BAC test results, given the lack of a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement.

The plurality determined that a blood test performed without a warrant is generally allowed as an exigent circumstance, even though BAC tests are searches under the Fourth Amendment. In this case, the exigent circumstances exception may apply, which allows for the police to obtain the evidence without a warrant so that it is not imminently destroyed and because there was a compelling need to perform a blood test on a suspected drunk driver. The exigency would exist here due to the inability to give the unconscious Mr. Mitchell a breath test to determine his BAC.

For the BAC test results to be successfully suppressed on remand, Mitchell would need to show that this case fell outside of the exigent circumstances. This could be due, for example, to the police conceding that they had the time to get a warrant for the blood draw.

An example of a D.C. case discussing a motion to suppress evidence is Dozier v. United States. In that case, the defendant had agreed to a pat down by the officers; however, the court found that he had been seized by the time the pat down began. Since the officers did not have an articulable and reasonable suspicion to seize and then pat down Mr. Dozier, the pat down violated the Fourth Amendment.

Since the pat down violated the Fourth Amendment, the court turned to the evidence seized from Mr. Dozier during the pat down, including drugs and other evidence that was used to convict him.

This evidence was the fruit of the violation of the Fourth Amendment, meaning that the evidence from the pat down could not be used. As a result, the motion to suppress should have been granted for the evidence.

Therefore, the court applied the exclusionary rule and concluded that the evidence from the pat down should have been suppressed, as well as testimony about what occurred after the illegal seizure.

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