The Exclusionary Rule and Appeals

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

To appreciate the interconnection between the Exclusionary Rule and the appeals process, we first need to revisit the basics. The Exclusionary Rule prohibits the use of evidence collected in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. But what happens if a court mistakenly admits such evidence, and the defendant is subsequently convicted? That’s where the appeals process comes into play.

The Role of Appeals

An appeal is a request to a higher court to review and change the decision of a lower court. Appeals provide an essential check on the lower courts by ensuring they correctly interpret and apply the law. In the context of the Exclusionary Rule, a defendant can appeal a conviction if they believe that the court erroneously allowed evidence that should have been excluded.

Harmless Error Doctrine

The appellate court, when reviewing a case, applies the ‘Harmless Error Doctrine.’ Under this doctrine, even if the trial court made an error, such as admitting evidence that should have been excluded, the appellate court will not reverse the conviction if the error is deemed “harmless.” In other words, if the court believes that the improperly admitted evidence did not influence the verdict, the defendant’s conviction will stand.

Applying the Harmless Error Doctrine

The application of the Harmless Error Doctrine in the context of the Exclusionary Rule can be complex. For instance, suppose the trial court allowed evidence obtained through an illegal search, contrary to the Exclusionary Rule. The appellate court must then decide whether the admission of this evidence was a ‘harmless error.’ To make this determination, the appellate court will look at the importance of the tainted evidence in the prosecution’s case and whether other evidence supports the conviction.

Impact of Appeals on the Exclusionary Rule

The intersection of the Exclusionary Rule and the appeals process significantly impacts criminal trials. For defendants, it provides a potential avenue for overturning a conviction based on illegally obtained evidence. For the prosecution, it underscores the importance of following constitutional protocols during investigations to ensure that evidence can be used in court.

The Importance of Legal Representation

Given the complexity of these issues, skilled legal representation is crucial for defendants seeking to challenge the admissibility of evidence on appeal. Attorneys can examine the trial court record, identify errors related to the Exclusionary Rule, and persuasively argue that these errors were not ‘harmless.’

By understanding the nexus between the Exclusionary Rule and appeals, we gain insight into how our legal system balances the need to respect individual rights with the pursuit of justice. This knowledge underscores the vital role of the Exclusionary Rule in maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice process and the appeals process in ensuring that this rule is correctly applied.


The intersection of the Exclusionary Rule, which prohibits the use of evidence collected in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights, and the appeals process plays a significant role in criminal trials. The appeals process allows for the review of lower court decisions, offering a chance to rectify any missteps, such as the erroneous admission of evidence. However, the appellate court applies the ‘Harmless Error Doctrine,’ meaning even if an error occurred, the conviction will not be overturned if the mistake is deemed “harmless”—that is, if it didn’t influence the verdict. The interplay of the Exclusionary Rule and appeals underlines the importance of constitutional adherence during investigations and the vital role skilled legal representation plays in identifying and arguing errors on appeal. This intricate balance maintains the integrity of the criminal justice process.


Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/24/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License



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