Robbins: The legacy of Mapp v Ohio |

Robbins: The legacy of Mapp v Ohio

This is the 10th part in an ongoing series on seminal cases in American law.

Sometimes, law can be downright colorful. Perhaps never more so than in the seminal case of Mapp versus Ohio and the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine embodied in it.

Dollree (“Dolly”) Mapp was a young woman who got mixed up with the wrong sort. More specifically, she got tied in with the illegal gambling operations of a mobster by the name of Shondor Birns whose reach was far and wide in organized crime in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940s and 50s. 

In May of 1957, the Cleveland cops received an anonymous tip that a man named Virgil Ogletree might be found at Dolly Mapp’s home, along with illegal betting slips and various paraphernalia employed in running a numbers game set up by Mapp’s boyfriend.

Ogletree himself was involved in the illegal betting world in Cleveland and was wanted for questioning in the bombing of a rival gambling racketeer and future boxing promoter — a guy by the name of Don King. Yeah, that Don King, he of the shock of gray hair stood on end like fright itself and $50 words where nickel words would do.

But I digress …

‘Not without a warrant’

Three policemen went to Dolly’s home and asked to enter. After consulting with her lawyer by telephone, Dolly said words to the effect of, “Nope. Not without a warrant!”

Thirteen hours later, four cars full of officers arrived and knocked on the door. When Mapp didn’t answer, they forced the door. Mapp asked to see their search warrant and was shown a piece of paper which she snatched away, and, in true mob drama fashion, stuffed inside her dress.  

The officers struggled with Mapp and recovered the piece of paper which was not seen again by either her or her lawyers. Neither was it introduced as evidence in any of the ensuing court proceedings.

As the search of Mapp’s apartment began, they discovered Ogletree, who was subsequently cleared on the bombing charge, hiding in the apartment of the downstairs tenant.

The police also found betting slips, a pistol, and some pornographic books and photos.  The police arrested Mapp and charged her with a misdemeanor count of possessing numbers paraphernalia, but she was acquitted.

Several months later, after Mapp refused to testify against Birns and his associates at their trial for the attempted shakedown of Don King, she was prosecuted for possession of pornography. Mapp was found guilty at trial of “knowingly having had in her possession and under her control certain lewd and lascivious books, pictures, and photographs.” She was convicted even though prosecutors were unable to produce a valid search warrant, the one — presumably — that had taken a dive in Dolly’s dress. Dolly Mapp was sentenced to one to seven years in prison.

Oh, my!

Are confiscated materials protected?

 She appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which affirmed her conviction.  She then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The question presented was a simple one; were the confiscated materials protected from seizure by the Fourth Amendment?

That amendment provides: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In an opinion authored by Justice Tom C. Clark, the majority brushed aside First Amendment issues (that is that Ms. Mapp’s right to possess pornography was part and parcel of the freedom of expression) and declared that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible in a state court.

So what about this “fruit of the poisonous tree” thing?    

Well, it is this; if something is obtained illicitly by law enforcement, all things that flow therefrom are similarly illicit.

A “fruit of the poisonous tree” objection is a legal metaphor used to describe evidence that is obtained illegally.  If the source (the “tree”) of the evidence or evidence itself is tainted, then anything gained therefrom (the “fruit”) from it is tainted as well.

The “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine is an extension of the exclusionary rule, which, subject to some exceptions, prevents evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment from being admitted in a criminal trial.  Like the exclusionary rule, the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine is intended to deter law enforcement from using illegal means to obtain evidence.

Ill-gotten gains by law enforcement, unless subject to the following clearly defined exceptions taint whatever flows from it.

  • The evidence was discovered in part as a result of an independent, untainted source;
  • It would inevitably have been discovered despite the tainted source;
  • The chain of causation between the illegal action and the tainted evidence is too attenuated; or
  • The search warrant was not found to be valid based on probable cause, but was executed by government agents in good faith.

Dare I say it?  Mapp … eh hem… was an important step in mapping this all out.

In its essence, what the case of Mapp v. Ohio stands for is that the exclusionary rule is essential to assuring the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment. Simple as that.

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