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Challenging Evidence in Federal Criminal Cases: Motions to Suppress

Challenging Evidence in Federal Criminal Cases: Motions to Suppress

Defendants in federal criminal cases have the right under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to challenge evidence obtained in violation of their constitutional rights. One of the main ways defense attorneys exercise this right is through filing a motion to suppress evidence before trial.

What Is a Motion to Suppress?

A motion to suppress is a request made by the defense asking the court to exclude or suppress certain evidence from being used against the defendant at trial. This usually happens when the defense believes the evidence was obtained illegally in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.Some common reasons for filing a motion to suppress include:

  • Evidence obtained during an unlawful search or seizure
  • Statements made by the defendant during a custodial interrogation without being read Miranda rights
  • Eyewitness identifications that were overly suggestive
  • Evidence derived from the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine

If the judge grants a motion to suppress, it means that piece of evidence cannot be used as part of the prosecution’s case. This could significantly damage the prosecution’s chances of securing a conviction.

When to File a Motion to Suppress

Defense attorneys can file a motion to suppress at any point before or during trial. However, it’s best to file early on so the defense has time to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding the evidence in question.Filing early also prevents scenarios where suppressed evidence gets presented to the jury, forcing the court to declare a mistrial. The defense needs to review discovery and pinpoint problematic evidence as soon as possible.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof varies depending on the type of motion:

  • Warrantless searches: The prosecution must prove the search was valid under one of the warrant exceptions.
  • Miranda violations: The prosecution must prove the defendant wasn’t in custody when they made statements.
  • Suggestive eyewitness ID: The defense must show police used suggestive procedures that created irreparable mistaken identity.

In many cases, the burden of proof requires pre-trial evidentiary hearings where both sides present arguments and evidence to support their positions.

Common Grounds for Suppression Motions

There are several ways evidence could have been obtained improperly, leading to suppression. Common grounds for motions include:

Fourth Amendment Violations

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A motion to suppress may challenge the validity of:

  • Warrantless searches: If police conduct a search without a valid warrant and no warrant exception applied, the evidence may be suppressed. For example, evidence from a warrantless vehicle search could get suppressed if there was no probable cause.
  • Invalid warrants: Evidence will get suppressed if police relied on false or misleading information to secure a search warrant.
  • Exceeding warrant scope: If police seize items outside the scope of an otherwise valid search warrant, those items could potentially get suppressed.

Miranda Rights Violations

Under Miranda v. Arizona, statements made by defendants during custodial police interrogations are inadmissible unless police issue the Miranda warnings first. Motions to suppress focus on whether:

  • The defendant was in custody when they made statements
  • Police properly Mirandized the defendant
  • The defendant invoked Miranda rights that police failed to honor

Even voluntary confessions made while in custody without Miranda warnings can get suppressed.

Unlawfully Obtained Eyewitness Identifications

Eyewitness misidentifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Motions to suppress may allege that police used:

  • Suggestive lineups: Lineup procedures that subtly encouraged eyewitnesses to select the suspect, undermining reliability.
  • Improper show-ups: Bringing the suspect out alone in front of eyewitnesses shortly after a crime can improperly influence ID.
  • Coercion: Police may use threats, violence, or promises of leniency to pressure eyewitnesses into identifying suspects.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

This doctrine requires suppression of any evidence derived from or enabled by constitutional violations – the “fruit” of illegal police conduct.For example, if police conduct an illegal traffic stop and discover drugs in the vehicle, a motion could get filed to suppress both the stop and the subsequent drug evidence as “fruit” of the bad stop.

Writing a Persuasive Suppression Motion

Crafting a convincing suppression motion is an art. The motion should clearly communicate:

  • The factual background: What, when, where, why, and how the evidence was obtained.
  • The constitutional principles at issue: What amendment or right was violated? Quote the relevant case law that supports your position.
  • How the violation occurred: Show exactly how police overstepped constitutional boundaries based on the facts unique to your case.
  • Why suppression is the appropriate remedy: Argue that suppression appropriately deters police misconduct and prevents constitutional harms.

Common Challenges Motions Face

While motions to suppress often succeed in getting evidence excluded when there are clear constitutional violations, they also frequently fail for reasons like:

  • Lack of standing: The defendant may not personally have standing to challenge the violation if the evidence was not obtained from them or their property directly.
  • Good faith exception: Even if there is a technical violation, police may have relied on the warrant or court order in “good faith,” allowing the evidence under an exception.
  • Attenuation doctrine: If the connection between the illegality and the evidence has become so weakened or “attenuated,” the evidence may still be legally admissible.
  • Inevitable discovery: If police can show they would have eventually discovered the evidence through legal means, it likely won’t get suppressed.

Why File Suppression Motions?

Despite difficulties, filing suppression motions is still critical for multiple reasons:Protects constitutional rights: Suppressing illegally-obtained evidence incentivizes police to honor civil liberties during investigations.Bolsters defense strategy: Getting damning evidence thrown out can completely undermine the prosecution’s case, resulting in dismissals or better plea deals later on.Creates appealable issues: Even if a motion gets denied at the trial court level, the defense can raise it as potential grounds for appeals later on and possible reversals.In many cases, filing a motion to suppress is the best chance a defendant has at blocking harmful evidence from influencing a verdict. Consulting with an experienced defense attorney is crucial for identifying Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment issues that could potentially lead to suppression.

Success Story: Illinois Drug Case Suppression Motion

United States v. Pineda-Moreno involved a motion to suppress successfully challenging a warrantless GPS tracking device police placed on the defendant’s vehicle without consent or a warrant. Police used the GPS to ultimately locate marijuana grow operations on two of Pineda-Moreno’s properties.Pineda-Moreno moved to suppress the evidence, arguing it was the fruit of an unlawful search. The district court denied the motion, Pineda-Moreno appealed, and the Ninth Circuit ordered suppression – the evidence discovered directly and indirectly as a result of the warrantless GPS tracking was inadmissible. Without this key evidence, the prosecution dismissed the case.


Motions to suppress play a pivotal role letting criminal defendants exercise their constitutional rights against illegal searches and seizures, self-incrimination, and unfair identification procedures. Consulting with a knowledgeable defense attorney is essential early on to identify and raise all viable suppression issues.While difficulties exist, suppression motions remain one of the best tools available for keeping improperly-obtained evidence out of trial. Mastering suppression motions takes experience, creativity, and zealous advocacy – all qualities embodied by reputable defense attorneys.












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