The Inevitable Discovery Exception to Suppressing Illegally Obtained Evidence

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that when law enforcement officers obtain evidence through illegal means, it is the court’s duty to suppress that evidence in order to deter the illegality.  Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984).  When such evidence is suppressed, it prevents the prosecutor from making further use of that evidence in the state’s case against the defendant.  This is a major tool which courts have created to protect criminal defendants from abusive law enforcement.  The rationale behind such a doctrine is that if evidence cannot or was not gathered in accordance with one’s constitutional rights, it shouldn’t be permitted to be used against the one who’s rights were violated, and so courts will in effect penalize the government for acting illegally.  Suppression works as a deterrent to illegal government activity.

Although suppression motions serve as a way to curb the government’s abuse of power, it becomes a toothless tool if the evidence that was obtained illegally would have been discovered anyway.  This is known as the “inevitable discovery” exception.  Courts apply the exception because if evidence will be inevitably discovered the rationale for suppression, the deterrent effect, is undermined and so there is little reason left to suppress the evidence.  This exception admits illegally obtained evidence if the police would have discovered the evidence by some other legal means.  The prosecutor has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence (greater than 50% likelihood) that the inevitable discovery exception should apply.

In order for the inevitable discovery doctrine to apply there must be an independent basis for discovery, that is, the investigation that would inevitably lead to the discovery of the evidence must be independent from the constitutional violation which would lead to suppression.  This can be proved by the prosecutor through hypothetical examples such as what could or would have happened through basic and routine investigative procedures.  The question the court must answer in deciding whether inevitable discovery applies is “whether a single, ongoing investigation would have developed an independent, legal avenue for discovery.”  See Topanotes, 2003 UT 30.

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