Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 104 (1984)

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Historically, in applying the exclusionary evidence rule (which prohibits the prosecution from using evidence seized in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights), the courts have also applied the ‘‘fruit of the poisonous tree’’ doctrine. This doctrine, which is also referred to as the ‘‘derivative evidence rule,’’ is discussed more fully under the entry entitled ‘‘Fruit of the Poisonous Tree’’ doctrine.

Nix v. Williams established the so-called ‘‘inevitable discovery’’ exception to the derivative evidence rule. This exception provides that, when the police engage in illegal conduct to obtain evidence, they are prohibited from using not only the principal evidence (that was the object of the illegal action), but any evidence derived from the unconstitutional conduct. Basically, if the police can demonstrate that they would have inevitably found the evidence sought to be excluded, then the derivative evidence rule should not apply. In other words, the evidence can be admitted to help determine defendant’s guilt.

The Nix case provides not only the foundation for the inevitable discovery doctrine, but its classic illustration. In that case, a man with mental problems was accused of murdering a young girl. At the time of his apprehension, neither the girl nor her body had been found. While the police were transporting the suspect from one city to another, a police officer deliberately elicited a confession from the suspect in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. From the confession, the police learned the whereabouts of the body and subsequently took gruesome pictures that they sought to introduce at the suspect’s trial. The suspect sought to exclude the evidence based on the derivative evidence rule. The court overruled the request, finding that a full-scale search was then being conducted for the body, which would have inevitably been found regardless of the illegality.

The difficulty in most inevitable discovery cases is in proving that the discovery was ‘‘inevitable’’ as opposed to merely ‘‘possible.’’ In Nix, the illegal police conduct (in that case, an illegally obtained confession) led the police to the body, thereby obviating the need for a further search. As a result, the Court could only speculate about whether the body would inevitably have been found had the illegal confession not been obtained. The Court found that the discovery was inevitable because the police had mapped out broad areas that included the place where the body was ultimately found, and were systematically searching the areas. As they finished one area, they proceeded to the next. The Court presumed that the search would have proceeded, as planned, and therefore that the body would have been found. As a result, the Court admitted the evidence.


References and Further Reading

  • Weaver, Russell L., Leslie W. Abramson, John M. Burkoff, and Catherine Hancock. Principles of Criminal Procedure. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2004.
  • Weaver, Russell L., Leslie W. Abramson, Ronald Bacigal, John M. Burkoff, Catherine Hancock, and Donald E. Lively. Criminal Procedure: Cases, Problems & Exercises. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2001.

See also Exclusionary Rule