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Wong Sun v. United States

    Citation. 371 U.S. 471, 83 S. Ct. 407, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441 (1963)

    Brief Fact Summary. The constitutionality of various statements made by suspected drug dealers was at issue.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[V]erbal evidence which derives so immediately from an unlawful entry and an unauthorized arrest as the officers’ action in the present case is no less the ‘fruit’ of official illegality than the more common tangible fruits of the unwarranted intrusion.”


    Facts. Hom Way (“Way”) was found with heroin in his possession after being under surveillance by federal narcotics officer for six weeks. Way told the officer that he bought heroin from someone named “Blackie Toy.” After obtaining this information, six or seven federal agents went to the location where Way said he purchased the heroin. It was a Laundromat operated by James Wah Toy (“Toy”). There is nothing in the record that says Toy and “Blackie Toy” are the same person. One agent went to the front door and announced that he was a federal narcotics agent. When that occurred, Toy slammed the door and began running toward his living quarters in the back of the Laundromat. The agent who approached the door and other agents followed Toy into the bedroom. Toy reached into a nightstand drawer and was arrested. There was nothing in the drawer and there were no narcotics found on the premises. The officers informed Toy that Way said he purchased narcotics from him. Toy said that
    he never sold drugs, but knew someone named Johnny who did. Toy described the house Johnny lived in to the officers.
    The agents went the house Toy described and found Johnny Yee (“Yee”) in the bedroom. After speaking to the agents, Yee gave them several tubes containing heroin. Within an hour, Yee and Toy were taken to the Office of the Bureau of narcotics. While at the office, Yee said that Toy and another individual, “Sea Dog” brought the heroin to him a few days before. “Sea Dog” was Wong Sun. The agents took Toy to Wong Sun’s avenue and Toy showed them where Wong Sun lived. The agents arrested Wong Sun in his apartment. A search of the apartment did not turn up any narcotics.
    Toy and Yee were arraigned and released. Wong Sun was arraigned the next day and also released. A few days later, all three individuals were interrogated by another Narcotics agent. The agent advised the individuals of their right to withhold information and right an attorney. The three individuals were interrogated individually. A statement was then prepared for each individual. Toy refused to sign his statement and wanted to know if the others had signed. Wong Sun also did not sign the statement, but admitted the accuracy of the statement.
    “The Government’s evidence tending to prove the petitioners’ possession (the petitioners offered no exculpatory testimony) consisted of four items which the trial court admitted over timely objections that they were inadmissible as ‘fruits’ of unlawful arrests or of attendant searches: (1) the statements made orally by petitioner Toy in his bedroom at the time of his arrest; (2) the heroin surrendered to the agents by [ ] Yee; (3) petitioner Toy’s pretrial unsigned statement; and (4) petitioner Wong Sun’s similar statement.”
    The Court of Appeals held that the arrests were illegal because they were not based on “probable cause” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment or “reasonable grounds” within the meaning of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956. “The Court of Appeals nevertheless held that the four items of proof were not the ‘fruits’ of the illegal arrests and that they were therefore properly admitted in evidence.”

    Issue. “[W]hether, granting establishment of the primary illegality, the evidence to which instant objection is made has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint[?]”

    Held. The majority began by pointing out the differences in Toy and Wong Suns’ cases and how they had to discuss each individually.
    The majority observed, “[t]he exclusionary rule has traditionally barred from trial physical, tangible materials obtained either during or as a direct result of an unlawful invasion. It follows from our holding in [Silverman v. United States] that the Fourth Amendment may protect against the overhearing of verbal statements as well as against the more traditional seizure of ‘papers and effects.’ Similarly, testimony as to matters observed during an unlawful invasion has been excluded in order to enforce the basic constitutional policies. Thus, verbal evidence which derives so immediately from an unlawful entry and an unauthorized arrest as the officers’ action in the present case is no less the ‘fruit’ of official illegality than the more common tangible fruits of the unwarranted intrusion. Nor do the policies underlying the exclusionary rule invite any logical distinction between physical and verbal evidence. Either in terms of deterring lawless conduct by federal officers, or o
    f closing the doors of the federal courts to any use of evidence unconstitutionally obtained the danger in relaxing the exclusionary rules in the case of verbal evidence would seem too great to warrant introducing such a distinction.”
    The majority concluded that it is “clear that the narcotics were ‘come at by the exploitation of that illegality’ and hence that they may not be used against Toy.”
    “Wong Sun’s unsigned confession was not the fruit of that arrest, and was therefore properly admitted at trial. On the evidence that Wong Sun had been released on his own recognizance after a lawful arraignment, and had returned voluntarily several days later to make the statement, [the majority held] that the connection between the arrest and the statement had “become so attenuated as to dissipate the taint.”
    The court’s holding as to Toy “that this ounce of heroin was inadmissible against Toy does not compel a like result with respect to Wong Sun. The exclusion of the narcotics as to Toy was required solely by their tainted relationship to information unlawfully obtained from Toy, and not by any official impropriety connected with their surrender by Yee. The seizure of this heroin invaded no right of privacy of person or premises which would entitle Wong Sun to object to its use at his trial.”

    Discussion. This is one of the Supreme Court’s seminal cases on the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine.

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