Wong Sun v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The constitutionality of various statements made by suspected drug dealers was at issue.

Facts of the case

Police arrested Hom Way for possession of heroin. While under arrest, Way told police that a man named “Blackie Toy” once sold him an ounce of heroin at his laundry on Leavenworth St. Later that day, police found a laundry run by James Wah Toy. Nothing on the record identified Toy as “Blackie Toy”, but police arrested him anyway. Police then went to Toy’s house where they arrested Johnny Yee and found several tubes containing less than one ounce of heroin. Police also arrested Wong Sun. Police interrogated the men and wrote statements in English for them to sign. Both men refused, citing errors in the statements. At trial in U.S. District Court, Toy and Sun were convicted on federal narcotics charges. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Question

Whether, granting establishment of the primary illegality, the evidence to which instant objection is made has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint?

Answer

The majority began by pointing out the differences in Toy and Wong Suns’ cases and how they had to discuss each individually.
The majority observed, the exclusionary rule has traditionally barred from trial physical, tangible materials obtained either during or as a direct result of an unlawful invasion. It follows from our holding in Silverman v. United States that the Fourth Amendment may protect against the overhearing of verbal statements as well as against the more traditional seizure of ‘papers and effects.’ Similarly, testimony as to matters observed during an unlawful invasion has been excluded in order to enforce the basic constitutional policies. Thus, verbal evidence which derives so immediately from an unlawful entry and an unauthorized arrest as the officers’ action in the present case is no less the ‘fruit’ of official illegality than the more common tangible fruits of the unwarranted intrusion. Nor do the policies underlying the exclusionary rule invite any logical distinction between physical and verbal evidence. Either in terms of deterring lawless conduct by federal officers, or o
f closing the doors of the federal courts to any use of evidence unconstitutionally obtained the danger in relaxing the exclusionary rules in the case of verbal evidence would seem too great to warrant introducing such a distinction.
The majority concluded that it is clear that the narcotics were ‘come at by the exploitation of that illegality’ and hence that they may not be used against Toy.
Wong Sun’s unsigned confession was not the fruit of that arrest, and was therefore properly admitted at trial. On the evidence that Wong Sun had been released on his own recognizance after a lawful arraignment, and had returned voluntarily several days later to make the statement, the majority held that the connection between the arrest and the statement had become so attenuated as to dissipate the taint.
The court’s holding as to Toy that this ounce of heroin was inadmissible against Toy does not compel a like result with respect to Wong Sun. The exclusion of the narcotics as to Toy was required solely by their tainted relationship to information unlawfully obtained from Toy, and not by any official impropriety connected with their surrender by Yee. The seizure of this heroin invaded no right of privacy of person or premises which would entitle Wong Sun to object to its use at his trial.

Conclusion

“The court held that an out-of-court declaration made after an arrest may not be used at the trial against one of the declarant’s partners in a crime unless the statement was made in furtherance of the criminal undertaking. Expounding, the Court posited that the arrests were held without probable cause. As to petitioner Toy, the Court expressed the view that his flight when the officers appeared at his door did not justify an inference of guilt sufficient to generate probable cause. Moreover, Toy’s declarations in his bedroom should be excluded as the “”fruits”” of the officers’ unlawful action and such exclusion also required the exclusion of the narcotics surrendered by Yee. More importantly, Toy’s unsigned statement was not corroborated and hence furnished no basis for his conviction. With regard to petitioner Wong, it was held that his unsigned confession and the heroin surrendered by Yee were admissible against him because not the fruit of the unlawful arrest. Furthermore, any references to Wong in Toy’s statement were incompetent to corroborate Wong’s confession

  • because of this, it was ruled that Wong was entitled to a new trial because it was not certain from the record whether the trial court might not have considered the contents of Toy’s statement as against Wong. In general, the convictions against the petitioners were vacated and they were granted a new trial based on a chain of inferences indicating prejudicial error in that the trial court may have considered each petitioner’s statement as corroboration of the other petitioner’s guilt, thus violating the rule that a co-conspirator’s hearsay statements were admissible against an accused only if made during and in furtherance of the conspiracy.”