Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine and its exceptions

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III

Are private messages conveyed through government-issued laptops or smart phones covered by the right to privacy and/or the right against unreasonable searches and seizures?

Certain positions in government call for a supply of laptops for a more efficient performance of public duties. Of course, while in the custody of the public official, it cannot be helped that some private conversations could be transmitted through the government issued-laptop.

Upon return of the laptop and some inappropriate or incriminating messages are unearthed, would these be admissible in evidence?

In the recent case of Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Edralin C. Reyes, Presiding Judge, Branch 43, Regional Trial Court, Roxas City, Oriental Mindoro, A.M. No. RTJ-20-2579, which came down on October 10, 2023, the Supreme Court explained the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine and its exceptions.”

Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.

First, what is the rule that is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree”? Therein, it was expounded as follows:                 

The right to privacy is further strengthened through the extension of the exclusionary rule to secondary or derivative evidence that flows from illegal searches and seizures or from admissions made by accused individuals under conditions proscribed by the Constitution. This rule is what is known as the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. The “fruit of the poisonous tree” is at least once removed from the illegally seized evidence, but it is equally inadmissible. The rule is based on the principle that evidence illegally obtained by the State should not be used to gain other evidence because the originally illegally obtained evidence taints all evidence subsequently obtained. Thus, if the police made an illegal arrest, or obtained a confession in violation of the suspect’s rights while under custodial investigation, and as a result, the police were directed to another physical evidence. The fruit of the poisonous doctrine requires that such derivative evidence be also excluded in any criminal prosecution that may arise on account of such evidence.”

                Indeed, to enhance the right of privacy, once it is transgressed, anything that flows from the violation, ie., evidence derived from the search in violation of the right to privacy, shall not be admissible in court.

However, jurisprudence has carved out exceptions to the rule. The exceptions are: (1)Independent source doctrine; (2)inevitable discovery; and, (3)absolute regulation and monitoring by government employer.

Independent source doctrine as exception.

                The first exception known as “independent source doctrine” was explained in Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Edralin C. Reyes, in this fashion:

“Similar to other evidentiary rules, the fruit of the poisonous tree admits of exceptions. In the case of In re: Special Report on the Arrest of Rogelio M Salazar, Jr., Sheriff IV, RTC-OCC, Boac, Marinduque (In re: Salazar), the Court refused to consider a piece of evidence as a fruit of the poisonous tree under the “independent source exception.” In re: Salazar involves administrative charges against their respondent sheriff for grave misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service, which stemmed from criminal cases filed against respondent sheriff for illegal sale, possession, and use of dangerous drugs. Respondent sheriff sought the dismissal of the administrative cases upon dismissal of his criminal cases due to quashal of the search warrant and the suppression of the evidence taken by virtue of the said warrant. In ruling that there exists substantial evidence to hold respondent sheriff administratively liable, the Court ruled that respondent sheriff’s admission of drug use during inquest cannot be considered as a fruit of the poisonous tree considering that such admission was already far removed from the illegal search warrant.

As the term connotes, if there is an “independent source” of evidence apart from the mere breach of privacy rights, the evidence obtained may be admissible in evidence notwithstanding the breach.

Inevitable discovery and absolute regulation

and monitoring by the government employer.

The second and third exceptions were likewise found in Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Edralin C. Reyes to be both applicable.

                When it comes to government-issued equipment or supplies, it can be expected that there will be constant monitoring from the proper government agencies. Thus, there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy in respect to the said equipment or supplies.

Inevitably, should a government employee or officer use the government-issued  equipment or supply for personal reasons and/or transactions, and inappropriate or incriminating evidence is found therein, then the same according to the teaching in Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Edralin C. Reyes, cannot be deemed a violation of the right to privacy and/or unreasonable searches and seizures and thus the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine will not apply. Instead, the exceptions will find application.

Aptly, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., once remarked, “the young man knows the rule, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

                (The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates– a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor, MCLE lecturer, bar reviewer and a book author. His website is