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United States v. Woodland

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

January 2, 2018




         An interrogation of an individual suspected of serious criminal activity will often consist of something other than a polite exchange of questions and answers. Law enforcement is also not obligated to identify and use the location that would be most appealing to the subject of the interrogation or to provide the subject with every accommodation that the subject might desire. But when the environment in which the interrogation is conducted becomes one in which a reasonable person would not believe that he could terminate the interrogation and leave, the subject must be advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Here, law enforcement interrogated the Defendant for over two hours, in an area of the Westlake Post Office they controlled, confronted him with evidence of his guilt, interrupted him frequently using an increasingly hostile tone when he denied the allegations, repeatedly threatened him with a lengthy prison sentence, and accompanied and continued recording him during his "break." Although the Court finds that the consent that Defendant gave to search his phone was voluntary, because the Court finds that the Defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda and he was not advised of his Miranda rights, the statements made by the Defendant during the interrogation will be suppressed.

         In this case, the Government has charged Defendant James Thomas Woodland, a United States Postal Service ("USPS") mail carrier, with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. ECF No. 1 at l.[1] Presently pending before the Court are Defendant's Motions to Suppress All Alleged Government Interrogation Statements, ECF No. 23, and All Alleged Evidence Obtained Through Consent Searches, ECF No. 24 (supplemented by ECF No. 25). The motions have been fully briefed, and an evidentiary hearing was held on December 11, 2017. ECF No. 30. For reasons explained in more detail below, Defendant's Motion to Suppress All Alleged Government Interrogation Statements, ECF No. 23, is granted and Defendant's Motion to Suppress All Alleged Evidence Obtained Through Consent Searches, ECF No. 24, is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 12, 2017, the Government filed the Indictment in this case, charging Defendant with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. ECF No. 1 at 1. On November 8, 2017, Defendant filed motions to suppress any statements he made during his April 25, 2017, interview with law enforcement, arguing that the interview amounted to a custodial interrogation requiring that he be read his Miranda rights, ECF No. 23, and evidence obtained from searches of his phone, car, and residence, arguing that he did not give valid consent to these warrantless searches, ECF No. 24. The Government opposed these motions, ECF No. 27, and an evidentiary hearing was held on December 11, 2017. ECF No. 30. At that hearing, the Government presented two witnesses: Hugo Aldana, the USPS Postmaster of Bethesda, Maryland, and Special Agent Ivan Balaguer, a USPS Postal Inspector who was in charge of the investigation and interview of Defendant. Postmaster Aldana testified regarding the circumstances leading up to Defendant's interview with law enforcement, and Balaguer testified as to the content of the interview. The Government also provided the Court with an audio recording of the interview of Defendant, which the Court reviewed multiple times in chambers.[2] Unless otherwise stated, the Court found the witnesses to be credible, but see infra n.10, and finds the facts to be consistent with the testimony summarized below and in the discussion that follows.

         Postmaster Aldana testified that he began his career with USPS in 1988 and has held the position of Postmaster for two and a half years. As Postmaster, Aldana is responsible for all postal-related activities in Bethesda, Maryland including the collection and delivery of the mail. Defendant was one of his employees. On April 25, 2017, Aldana received a phone call from the Office of Inspector General[3] ("OIG") regarding certain unusual packages. The OIG inspector asked questions about the letter carrier responsible for the deliveries and the addresses for the packages. Aldana identified Defendant as the responsible letter carrier. Multiple postal inspectors subsequently came to the Westlake Post Office as well as officers from the Montgomery County Police Department; upon arrival, they indicated that they wanted to speak to the Defendant about questionable packages, possibly involving narcotics. At Aldana's direction, a supervisor called the Defendant, who was then on his route delivering mail, and instructed him to return to the post office. Aldana testified that asking a letter carrier to return to the post office was not unusual because there was often additional mail that needed to be picked up by the carrier for delivery.

         Aldana was present when the Defendant returned to the post office. Two Postal Inspectors, Balaguer and Special Agent Steven Scully, were there and said they would like to ask the Defendant some questions if he did not mind. They read him his Garrily rights from a pre- printed document while they were all sitting in the manager's office.[4] Defendant initialed and signed the document, indicating that he understood his rights and agreed to speak to the inspectors. Aldana described the inspectors' demeanor during this time as casual. Defendant was not told that he had to speak to law enforcement or that he had to accompany them to another room but he agreed to do so. The Defendant, Scully and Balaguer all then left the manager's office and went upstairs to the OIG office. Aldana stayed behind but later spoke to the Defendant about being suspended after the conversation upstairs was completed. Aldana believes it was a "couple of hours or an hour or two" between the time Balaguer and Scully took the Defendant upstairs and when they brought Defendant back downstairs.[5]

         Balaguer testified that he is a Postal Inspector and has been in that position for five years. He works at the Westlake Post Office in Bethesda. On April 25, 2017, he had been doing surveillance on the Defendant as the Defendant delivered mail on his route. Between 12:45 and 1:00 PM, he was informed that a call had been made to have Defendant return to the post office. He followed Defendant back to the Westlake Post Office and saw him enter the facility. Balaguer entered through a different entrance, and contacted Scully who met them there. Balaguer next saw the Defendant when Aldana brought him into a manager's officer where Scully and Balaguer were waiting. The door was closed behind them and there were four of them in the room. Scully identified himself and introduced Balaguer; both individuals were in plain clothes but introduced themselves as "police." Scully read him his Garrity rights, which included advising the Defendant that he was free to leave. The Defendant reviewed the form and initialed and signed it. Balaguer asked the Defendant if he would accompany them to a room on the second floor so they could have a more private conversation. The Defendant agreed to go to the second floor, and was not restrained as they went upstairs. They went upstairs and into an area that is access-controlled and that only OIG has access to. A badge is needed to get in but not to exit.

         A total of five law enforcement personnel were in the OIG office with the Defendant: Scully, Balaguer, another Postal Inspector and two Montgomery County Police Department detectives. Everyone was in plain clothes and their weapons were concealed within their jackets. No officer sat between the Defendant and the door at any time. Recording began almost as soon as the Defendant entered the room. The door remained open for most of the interview, although it was closed about 60-90 minutes into the interview because of 3-5 agents who arrived outside of the interview room. Those agents were also involved in the instant case. The door was closed at that point to minimize distraction. Defendant had a cellphone in his possession during the interview and, at some point, Balaguer asked for consent to search the cellphone. According to Balaguer's testimony on direct examination, the Defendant gave verbal consent, unlocked the phone and handed it to Balaguer.[6]

         Thirty minutes into the interview, the Defendant asked for a cigarette break and, eventually, he was provided one. The Defendant was accompanied by Balaguer and a detective during the smoke break. Balaguer testified that he accompanied the Defendant on the smoke break "to be friendly." He continued recording the conversation during the smoke break. When going out for the smoke break, they went downstairs into a rear gated area, stepped out and walked to the Defendant's postal vehicle; from there, the Defendant retrieved his cigarettes. They began talking about his personal vehicle, which was 20 yards away. Balaguer asked for consent to search the vehicle and it was provided. A search of the vehicle revealed a small amount of marijuana. They walked back upstairs and continued the interview.

         The officers found incriminating messages on the Defendant's phone, and Balaguer advised the Defendant that the phone was evidence and asked for consent to image the phone. The Defendant agreed and Balaguer had him sign a consent-to-search form after explaining the contents of the form. The Defendant was told that the inspectors would get a search warrant if consent was not provided.

         At the end of the interview, Balaguer asked for consent to search Defendant's home after reading a consent to search form. Balaguer transported him to his residence where a consent-search of his residence took place. The reason Balaguer drove the Defendant home was concern over comments that Defendant had made regarding suicide. Defendant was not placed under arrest after the search of his home and, in fact, he was not arrested until months later.


         A. Statements Made During Non-Mirandized Interview

         Defendant asks the Court to suppress any statements that he made during his interview with law enforcement on April 25, 2017. ECF No. 23 at 1. While the Defendant was advised of his Garrity rights, the parties agree that he was not advised of his Miranda rights before being interviewed by law enforcement. Defendant argues that he was in custody at the time and should have been advised of his Miranda rights. Id. at 4. The Government, however, argues that Defendant was never in custody, was always free to end the interview and leave the Westlake Post Office, and that the Miranda warnings were therefore not necessary. ECF No. 27 at 8.

         The Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination provides that "[n]o person... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const., Amendment V. In Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the Supreme Court established a prophylactic, procedural mechanism that safeguards a defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege when that defendant is subject to custodial interrogation. 384 U.S. at 444. Before conducting a custodial interrogation of a suspect, law enforcement officials must inform the suspect that he has the right to remain silent, that his statements may be used against him at trial, and that he has the right to an attorney during questioning. Id. The Government does not dispute that the Defendant was interrogated; thus, the Court must determine only if the Defendant was in custody. In determining whether an individual is in custody for purposes of Miranda, courts determine whether, viewed objectively, "a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation" to be one of custody. Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442 (1984). In making this determination, courts consider factors such as "the time, place and purpose of the encounter, the words used by the officer, the officer's tone of voice and general demeanor, the presence of multiple officers, the potential display of a weapon by an officer, and whether there was any physical contact between the officer and the defendant." United States v. Hashime, 734 F.3d 278, 282, 283(4th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Day, 591 F.3d 679, 696 (4th Cir. 2010)).

         Here, the "time, place and purpose of the encounter" weigh in favor of a finding of custody. Defendant was interviewed for approximately two and a half hours, with only one meaningful break where he was accompanied as he smoked a cigarette and the officers gained consent to search his car.[7] The encounter was initiated when he was ordered back to the post office by his superiors because of unusual packages. The officers made clear to the Defendant very early in the encounter that they were investigating the criminal trafficking of cocaine, and that they suspected that he was involved. See Transcript at 6 ("we've seen these boxes come to your route before, in the past, and we've noticed something hinky about the scans ... I just want you to be straight-up with me because there's some bad stuff in this - - in these boxes."). The majority of the interview occurred in an office, with at least five law enforcement officers present in the room. While the interrogation occurred at the Westlake Post Office, a building that Defendant was familiar with, Aldana explained that after Defendant was advised of his Garrity rights in the manager's office, the officers moved Defendant to an area of the building that was restricted to employees who worked at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an arm of law enforcement, by way of an access-restricted door. ECF No. 27 at 3. Balaguer testified that law enforcement officers needed to use a security badge to gain entrance. The interrogation occurred in an office whose door was initially left open; however, during the interrogation, the door was closed. Transcript at 44. Furthermore, Balaguer testified that a number of officers and other detectives were waiting outside the room; thus, while he could have walked out of the room he was in, in order for the Defendant to leave, he would have had to walk past law enforcement through a door that he saw was access-controlled.[8] See United States v. Giddins, 858 F.3d 870 880 (4th Cir. 2017) (In finding custody existed, noting that "[i]t is true that one door was unlocked in the interrogation room, but it was the door past the questioning detective. The door immediately behind [the defendant] was locked, so in order to leave the room, [the defendant] would have had to walk past [a law enforcement officer].") Putting this all together, Defendant was questioned for an extended period of time about criminal activity, in a section of his workplace controlled by law enforcement. Overall, the "time, place and purpose of the encounter" weigh in favor of finding that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave, and was therefore in custody.

         The "words used by the officer, the officer's tone of voice and general demeanor" strongly support a finding that Defendant was in custody at the time he was questioned. Although Aldana and Balaguer testified that the officers' initial demeanor was casual, the audio recording reveals that the law enforcement officers continuously and aggressively talked over Defendant and questioned him in a manner that was, at many points, hostile for over two hours. For instance, relatively early in the interview, the Defendant is confronted by Balaguer in this exchange:

Balaguer: And they're all coming to your route, and they're all on your scanner. And when this one says it's supposed to be delivered to this street, guess what? The geolocation on your scanner isn't in front of this address; it's at a completely different place, which is the really suspicious, really guilty part of this whole thing. Why would - - you know, if you were legitimately doing what you were supposed to do, ...

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