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United States v. Hill

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

July 8, 2019



          Paul G. Byron, Judge

         This cause is before the Court on Defendant Ronald Hill's Motion to Suppress Statements (Doc. 28), and Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 35). The Government has submitted Responses in Opposition to the Defendant's motions. (Docs. 34, 42). Upon due consideration, and with the benefit of an evidentiary hearing held on July 2, 2019, Defendant's Motions to Suppress are Denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 12, 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) used a peer-to-peer file-sharing program to download images and videos of child pornography from a computer using an IP address belonging to the Defendant. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 4-5). On December 4, 2018, FBI Special Agent (“SA”) Kevin Kaufman submitted an application and an affidavit in support of a search warrant to Magistrate Judge Spaulding. (Doc. 42-1, pp. 9-37). That same day, Magistrate Judge Spaulding issued a Search and Seizure Warrant. (Id. at p. 2). The FBI, accompanied by local law enforcement, executed the search warrant on December 6, 2018. (Doc. 1, ¶ 10). The Defendant moves to suppress incriminating statements made to SA Kaufman and SA Rod Hyre and incriminating evidence recovered from his computer.


         Defendant Hill argues that his statements to the FBI should be suppressed because he was subjected to custodial questioning without the advisement of Miranda warnings, and his statements were not voluntary. (Doc. 28, p. 4). The Government characterizes the interview as non-custodial and voluntary. (Doc. 34, p. 7).

         A suspect is entitled to Miranda warnings when interrogated while in custody because such circumstances are presumed to exert pressure on the suspect to speak. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). “[T]he ultimate inquiry is simply whether there is a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest.”[1] Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 662 (2004) (quoting California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125 (1983)). That is, to find the questioning to have occurred in a custodial setting, the Court must find that a reasonable person in Mr. Hill's position would feel both “constrained not to leave” and that his “freedom of actions [was] curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.United States v. Luna-Encinas, 603 F.3d 876, 881 (11th Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original). The test employed by the Court is objective; the subjective beliefs of either the defendant or the interviewing officer on whether the defendant is free to leave or is under arrest are irrelevant. United States v. Moya, 74 F.3d 1117, 1119 (11th Cir. 1996). The only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable person in the defendant's position would have understood the situation. Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442 (1984). Courts must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, and no particular fact in the analysis is dispositive. United States v. Brown, 441 F.3d 1330, 1349 (11th Cir. 2006). However, the Court should consider the defendant's age, education, intelligence, the duration and nature of the detention and questioning, and the lack of any advice to the accused of his constitutional rights. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 226 (1973).

         Other factors for the Court to consider include whether the defendant is told he is not under arrest and is free to leave. United States v. Brown, 441 F.3d 1330, 1347 (11th Cir. 2006). In Brown, the Eleventh Circuit held:

         Unambiguously advising a defendant that he is free to leave and is not in custody is a powerful factor in the mix, and generally will lead to the conclusion that the defendant is not in custody absent a finding of restraints that are “so extensive that telling the suspect he was free to leave could not cure the custodial aspect of the interview.” Id. (quoting United States v. Muegge, 225 F.3d 1267, 1271 (11th Cir. 2000)).

         Similarly, Courts are “much less likely to find the circumstances custodial when the interrogation occurs in a familiar or at least neutral surroundings, such as the suspect's home.” Id. The Eleventh Circuit in Luna-Encinas further instruct trial courts to consider whether officers brandished weapons, touched the suspect, or used language or tone that indicate compliance with the offier's directives could be compelled, as well as the duration of the detention. Luna-Encinas, 603 F.3d at 882.

         1. The Interview

         In the instant case, the officers approached Defendant's home and knocked on his door in a customary manner, as opposed to banging on the door.[2] SA Kaufman announced in a conversational tone “Police, Come to the door. Police. Come to the door.” (Ex. 2(a), p. 1, line 13 “1:13”).[3] Upon opening the door, SA Kaufman said, “Hi. You Ronald?” (Id. at 1:15). After confirming Mr. Hill's identity and inquiring whether any other people or weapons were in the home, SA Hyre introduced himself. (Id. at 2:2). SA Kaufman advised Hill they had a search warrant and asked Hill to identify his wireless provider and whether his router was password-protected. (Id. at 2:11-14). Mr. Hill was asked several questions about his internet provider, which information was already known from the investigation, and asked Mr. Hill how many computers or other devices he had in the home. (Id. at 2:19-3:14). Then SA Hyre stated:

Okay. Hey, Ron, first thing to understand is you're not under arrest. Okay? Nothing like that. Okay? We're just - we'd like to - and you don't have to talk to us be we'd like to ask you some questions. Okay? Obviously we're - we're - we've got the warrant and so we'd just like to ask you some questions.

(Id. at 3:17-21).

         Mr. Hill responded, “Yeah, Okay.” (Id. at 3:25). SA Hyre asked Mr. Hill, “You understand that?”, and Hill replied “Yeah.” (Id. at 4:1-2).

         Both SA Kaufman and Hyre were dressed in civilian clothing, but their body armor and side arms were visible and remained holstered. (Ex. 2). A third uniformed officer stood off to the side with his weapon secured. (Id.). Other local law enforcement were staged to the side and came around the corner to enter the home as SA Kaufman spoke with Defendant. (Id.). One female officer drew her weapon from its holster immediately before entering the home, keeping the weapon close to her side and pointed down. (Id.).

         SA Hyre and Kaufman advised Mr. Hill that as soon as the officers clear his home they will go inside to retrieve a shirt for him. (Ex. 2(a), at 4:3-8). The conversation turned to whether Mr. Hill lived alone and had recently obtained his HVAC degree. (Id. at 5:4- 17). An unidentified officer asked SA Kaufman, SA Hyre, and Defendant if they want to come inside, and SA Kaufman, SA Hyre and Mr. Hill sat at the kitchen table. (Id. at 6-12).[4] After taking their seats at the kitchen table, SA Hyre removed his body armor, and a female agent asked “Any other tools?”, (Id. at 7:2), and Mr. Hill held his hands up briefly. (Ex. 2). Mr. Hill testified at the evidentiary hearing and described this gesture as his attempt to show the officers he was being cooperative and that they could search him or do anything they want. Mr. Hill was not required to raise his hands in response to the agent's comment.

         Shortly after being seated at the kitchen table, SA Kaufman told Mr. Hill “the reason why we're here is because there is a peer-to-peer file-sharing program that you were using that ended up distributing child pornography to us.” (Ex. 2(a), at 8:23-25). SA Kaufman's tone in making this statement was conversational and polite. Mr. Hill denied being a “hands-on offender” and readily admitted to watching child pornography “[o]nce every couple of, I don't know, months, maybe.” (Id. at 9:10-11; 20-25; 10:1). Mr. Hill admitted to viewing child pornography starting a couple years earlier while he was in his 40s. (Id. at 11:13-23). Mr. Hill provided his password to the officers, so they could access his computer, admitted to downloading a video file called “Baby J”, and discussed a past allegation of sexual abuse against him. (Id. at 12:9-14; 13:6-9; 14:23-16:16).

         After discussing his typical procedure of downloading, viewing, and deleting child pornography, Defendant asked SA Kaufman “Am I going to jail?” (Id. at 19:5). SA Kaufman replied:

Um, right now, like I said, you're not under arrest. It's - it - we're going to do the search warrant and see what - see what's out there. Don't know if you're gonna be arrested today or not. It ...

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