The Motion to Suppress Evidence: A Brief History and Overview
Al Bundy spends his Friday night at TGI Fridays drinking beers with other patrons and relishing in old memories of his days playing high school football for the Polk High Panthers. After he finishes telling his famous story about scoring 4 touchdowns in one game during the 1966 city championship game—including the game winning touchdown in the final seconds—he decides to head home.
As Bundy pulls out of the parking lot in his 1971 Plymouth Duster, he is spotted by Deputy Sheriff “Spare Tire” Dixon. Deputy “Spare Tire” Dixon, who played high school football for the losing team against Bundy in the 1966 city championship game, is still resentful of Bundy’s record setting performance. And he intends to get even. To exact revenge, Deputy Dixon decides to conduct a traffic stop on Bundy’s vehicle, for no reason other than to harass him. When Deputy Dixon approaches the vehicle and initiates a conversation with Bundy, he smells alcohol on Bundy’s breath. Bundy is eventually arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence.
Thereafter, Bundy’s criminal defense attorney files a Motion to Suppress evidence in the DUI court case. The motion alleges that because Deputy “Spare Tire” Dixon neither had reasonable suspicion nor probable cause to initiate the traffic stop of Bundy’s vehicle, the stop was an unconstitutional violation of Bundy’s 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The motion calls for the exclusion of all evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful stop. Without any evidence to prove the crime of DUI, the prosecutor has no choice but to drop the charges.
What is a Motion to Suppress?
Now, with that bit of context, let’s start our analysis. A Motion to Suppress is an extremely powerful tool used by defense attorneys in criminal cases. As we saw in the example above, a factually and legally supported Motion to Suppress (filed and argued competently) has the ability to facilitate the complete dismissal of a case. It can be a game changer. It certainly was for Al Bundy.
A factually and legally supported Motion to Suppress (filed and argued competently) has the ability to facilitate the complete dismissal of a case.
At its core, a Motion to Suppress is a request made by a criminal defendant (typically through his attorney), to have the court (or judge) exclude certain evidence from being considered by the trier of fact. In the American criminal justice system, the “trier of fact” is a jury panel but can also be a judge—in the case of a bench trial. Because a Motion to Suppress is a legal challenge that seeks to exclude evidence from being presented at trial, it is considered a “pre-trial motion.” Indeed, these motions are often filed and argued well in advance of trial.
In federal courts, Rule 41(h) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure governs Motions to Suppress. In Florida, Motions to Suppress are governed in Rule 3.190(g) and 3.190(h) of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Dispositive vs. Non-Dispositive Motion to Suppress
As mentioned above, a Motion to Suppress evidence can sometimes result in the complete dismissal of the charges. As was the case in our example above. This is known as a “Dispositive Motion to Suppress.” Yet, other times a Motion to Suppress calls for the exclusion of only a small portion of the overall evidence. In such cases, the prosecutor may still resume prosecution based on the remaining evidence. This is known as a “Non-Dispositive Motion to Suppress.”
The 4th Amendment
The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guarantees the right of persons to be free from unreasonable government searches and seizures. It states as follows:
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. U.S. Const. amend. IV.
Motions to Suppress are (usually but not always) raised in the context of alleged violations of the 4th Amendment. The 4th Amendment effectively places limits on the power of the government (through policing) to search people and their property, make arrests, and seize items and contraband. Therefore, a Motion to Suppress (in this context) asks the court to exclude otherwise admissible evidence, that was obtained in violation of a defendant’s 4th Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures.
While it is more common to see the exclusionary rule imposed as a remedy to violations of the 4th Amendment, the rule also applies to violations of the 5th Amendment (right to remain silent) and 6th Amendment (right to counsel).
The Exclusionary Rule
The Motion to Suppress is a logical outgrowth of a century-old legal doctrine known as the “Exclusionary Rule.” Throughout history, courts grappled with the question of how to prevent and remedy unlawful government overreach during criminal investigations. Equally challenging was determining just what recourse a defendant had, whose rights were infringed by such overzealous policing. The Exclusionary Rule surfaced in the United States Supreme Court early in the twentieth century to address this dilemma.
Almost a hundred years ago, in Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the warrantless seizure of items from a private residence constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The remedy for this constitutional infringement, was to exclude all evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful seizure. Id. In summation, Weeks held that when a search or seizure violates the 4th Amendment rights of a defendant, any evidence obtained as a result of the search or seizure should be deemed inadmissible at trial against the defendant. This was done both to serve as a remedy for the defendant, whose rights were violated, and to deter law enforcement from violating the rights of suspects. This is the heart of the Exclusionary Rule, and the modern basis for the Motion to Suppress evidence.
Though the decision in Weeks formally established the authority of the Exclusionary Rule as a binding precedent, it did so only on a federal level. In fact, for many years after the decision in Weeks, most states continued to reject the Exclusionary Rule. But that came to an end in 1961, when the U. S. Supreme Court in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), resolved the issue holding that the exclusionary rule applied to the states as a matter of Fourteenth Amendment due process. Thus, the Exclusionary Rule became the law of the land.
Most Motions to Suppress Fit into Three General Categories
A. Motions to Suppress Evidence:
As detailed above, a Motion to Suppress Evidence asserts that evidence has been unlawfully obtained and should therefore be excluded from being used against the defendant. The motion must clearly identify both the specific evidence the moving party is seeking to have suppressed, as well as the reason and legal justification for suppression. Motions to Suppress Evidence often involve searches and seizures of houses, apartments, residences, vehicles, and vessels. They can also include searches of people themselves and even personal property like luggage, backpacks, and containers.
B. Motions to Suppress Statements of Defendant:
Generally, a defendant can move to suppress their own statement(s), when they believe the statement(s) was taken in violation of their 5th Amendment right to remain silent, and/or their 6th Amendment right to counsel. This is often where defendants allege that their statements were taken in the absence of properly administered Miranda Warnings.
In the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the United States Supreme Court ruled that before a defendant (who is in custody) may be interrogated by police, the defendant must be advised of the following: 1) They have the right to remain silent; 2) That anything they say can be used against them; 3) They have the right to have an attorney present during questioning; and 4) If they cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided at public expense.
If these warnings are not administered properly, a motion to suppress properly filed and argued will exclude (or suppress) the statements.
C. Motions to Suppress Eyewitness Identification:
Lastly, a Motion to Suppress can be used to exclude eyewitness identification of the defendant if the identification procedure used violated due process. “The 14th Amendment requires the exclusion of any identification evidence … when the identification procedure used is so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of an irreparable misidentification.” Simmons v. U.S., 390 U.S. 377 (1968). Identification procedures can be improper for several reasons, which can result in the identification being overly suggestive. An overly suggestive identification procedure that substantially raises the probability of misidentification can be attacked via a motion to suppress.
A Motion to Suppress is a tool used to exclude evidence that was unlawfully obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Depending on the circumstances, a defendant can move to exclude tangible and physical evidence, statements and confessions, and eyewitness identifications of the defendant. If you have further questions regarding this matter, feel free to contact our office for a free consultation. The Law Office of William B. Wynne is criminal law firm servicing the Tampa Bay area.