Legal Question-illegal search finds a dead body

What happens?

I saw this situation in an episode of Memphis Beat, but even though that was TV I think the question is valid and interesting. At least, to me.

In the show, the detective breaks into a house looking for…something (I don’t remember, but it was not hot pursuit or exigent circumstances or whatever). No one else is there. Going through the house, he finds a suspicious-looking lone refrigerator that is duct taped shut. He decides to open it, and finds a dead body. I don’t remember the details of the episode, but for this hypothetical, say it is the body of a homeless person, or someone that no one considered missing, let alone possibly dead.

So as I see it, as a person whose sum total of legal experience is seeing every episode of Law & Order, we have a case with two levels of illegal search (house, plus closed refrig- no ‘plain view’ exception). What do the police do? They obviously can’t leave the body there, but my understanding is the evidence can’t be used. And since the only evidence of the crime is the body (and since no one was looking for the guy, I would think there is no way to argue inevitable discovery) is there even a prosecutable case?

So law-talking people of the 'Dope, what is the reality in this hypothetical? What salient fact of law am I ignorant of?

Generally, you can only suppress evidence if you have “standing” - meaning it was your right that was being violated. So, for example, they could still use the body if the suspect was someone who didn’t live in the house. If the defendant did live there, the prosecutor would have to come up with some reason why it was OK for the cop to break into the house. If he couldn’t, the judge is supposed to suppress the evidence - meaning it couldn’t be used at trial.

Also note there are two aspects to this—what the police can/will do, and what will be admitted in court.

Couldn’t he make an anonymous call so the cops did have probable cause to search the house?

If the cop is going to break the rules, then the question is moot. “I heard a child screaming inside” or “I smelled the Reefer” or whatever lie circumvents the hypothetical.

My understanding is that cops don’t usually lie about probable cause because they can get into trouble if their search comes up with nothing. But if he already knows there’s a body there, couldn’t he just make up any excuse? What would be the downside in that situation?

If he already knew the body was there, he could just go to a judge and get a search warrant.

You’re saying he’ll make an anonymous call—lie after the fact—but not say he smelled the Reefer—lie after the fact?

Per the hypothetical, the judge will ask “how do you know the body was there” and the answer will be “because of an illegal search” and the judge will just sit there, staring at the cop until the implications slowly sink in.

Interesting point about standing-if the killer was not the owner of the house, the evidence is possibly usable. If the killer was the owner, though, maybe not.

And faking a probable cause-remember the body is in a sealed fridge. I’m assuming (until the invention of smell-o-vision) that the sealed refridge kept the smell from permeating the house.

My memory of the show was that the only reason Detective Elvis opened the fridge was because it looked funny, all duct taped closed. I don’t think he expected to find who he was looking for in there.

It might depend on what the officer was looking for. If s/he was looking for stolen plasma TVs they wouldn’t reasonably be in a fridge so there’s be no right for him to open it (the example my civics teacher used was they can’t rummage through drawers if they’re looking for TVs). If s/he was looking for drugs and old fridge might be a logical place to put them.

I guess there’s even a Wikipedia article on this

Yeah, but the hypothetical is that he found out about the body through an illegal search. So are there incentives against simply lying? Either through an anonymous call, or by making up a probable cause?

I mean, the law doesn’t force him to just leave the body there forever now, right? At the very least, they can get the body to a mortuary and start investigating the homeowner, even if they can’t use that particular piece of evidence when building a case?

Yes, that’s the most likely result. Just because you can’t use evidence in a court doesn’t mean you can’t seize it, and judge isn’t going to order a dead body returned. And they’ll either try to find independent evidence or else the offer him a sweetheart plea bargain.

You’re confusing what’s admissible as evidence and what actions the police can take.

Read the Wiki article again- it’s got nothing to do with logical. It has to do with size- whether the TV being searched for fits in the refrigerator or drawer. Just like you can search for a ring in a sugar bowl , you could search for a 15 inch flat screen in a large enough drawer or refrigerator. (you must have taken civics before flat-screen TVs)

To be fair, my question covered both.

But, if the only evidence that a crime was committed was the body, doesn’t it follow that any evidence found on the body (bullet, DNA, fingerprints, etc) are themselves just as inadmissible as the fact that there was a body in the house? And any leads that arise from the evidence are also ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’? Even if the dead body had a video recorder going that showed the actual murderer murdering, wouldn’t even that be inadmissible?

It seems absurd, but I can’t get past the fact that in this situation, there is nothing the police could charge the homeowner concerning the dead body. Forget murder, they can’t even get him for ‘improper disposal of a body’, as for purposes of a trial, there IS no body. It seems like, if you split legal hairs, even the identity of the deceased is ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’, because without the body, no one would have even knew he was dead. So you can’t work backwards from the victim to find the connection to the homeowner.

I know, the hypothetical sounds like a law school puzzle. Like, you luck into the ‘perfect murder’ because the cops performed an illegal search. But I figure in the real world, you don’t have to ignore the body. But how?

I loved Memphis Beat. That is all.

Me, too. But I do wish they’d filmed it in Memphis. They should have just called it New Orleans Beat; people like Elvis there, too.

I hope it becomes available, at least like Raines, that came out on iTunes but not DVD.

What if the guy doing the breaking and entering left the fridge open, called the cops and while sitting there admitted to his crime?

Sure, he’d be charged for breaking and entering, or illegal entry or whatever, but then wouldn’t the police have a legitimate reason to be in the house, and discover the body?

Or what about assuming that he can get out without leaving any evidence - then make an anonymous call saying he heard something weird inside the house?

Remember that the B&E guy in this case is a cop. He is expected to know better. Using a wink-wink “anonymous source” as probable cause might or might not fly, depending on the judge I suspect.