But an interaction doesn’t transform into an “interrogation” merely because a suspect voluntarily offers an “unexpected and unresponsive” answer. 

 

U.S. v. Lester

Nos. 22 – 6076/6077

Sixth Circuit Appellate Court

April 16, 2024

Travis’ Felonious Habits

After serving a forty-one-month prison sentence for possessing ammunition as a felon, Mr. Travis Lester began a thirty-six-month term of supervised release.  Within a few months, Mr. Lester fell back into old habits.  After twice testing positive for cocaine, he stopped appearing for his required addiction therapy and drug tests. [This is a tactic that inhibits Mr. Lester from testing positive for drug tests.]  Then Mr. Lester was charged with aggravated assault under Tennessee law for striking a woman in the head with a handgun and shooting at two other people.

Warrant Service

Based on these charges and other supervised-release violations, Tennessee and the federal government issued arrest warrants.  The U.S. Marshals Violent Fugitive Task Force executed them.  An informant told the Marshals that Mr. Lester was at the Memphis Villa Inn with Ms. Shebrica Phillips—his girlfriend, who also had an outstanding arrest warrant.  So the Task Force went to the motel and lined up outside the couple’s room.  The officers knocked and announced themselves.  Ms. Phillips opened the door, and the officers quickly arrested Mr. Lester and Ms. Phillips.

Mr. Travis Lester and his girlfriend Ms. Shebrica Phillips both had warrants and were staying here at the Memphis Villa Inn, 3275 Blues Highway in Memphis Tennessee.  Mr. Lester’s arrest at the doorway led to additional contraband inside his room.  Were the officers actions objectively reasonable … or should Mr. Lester’s .40 caliber pistol be excluded?

Pat Down, Crack Cocaine and Weed in the Room

While patting Mr. Lester down, an officer found a plastic baggie containing a rocklike substance (later determined to be 4.9 grams of crack cocaine) and $869 in his pockets.  The officer then asked, “[Is] there anything else on you, any other drugs, anything that would stick or harm me?”  Mr. Lester responded, “No, just some weed in the room.”   Meanwhile, other officers performed a protective sweep of the motel room to ensure nobody else was hiding.  They didn’t find anyone.  But the officers did see a digital scale on the nightstand.

Search Warrant, 40 Caliber Pistol, High Capacity Mag and Marijuana

The officers field-tested the rocklike substance, which came back positive for crack cocaine.  Based on the crack cocaine, the scale, and Mr. Lester’s marijuana admission, the officers secured a warrant to search the room.  Their search uncovered a stolen .40 caliber pistol loaded with a high-capacity magazine, a small bag of marijuana, and the scale they’d seen earlier.

Motion to Suppress

A grand jury charged Mr. Lester with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Before trial, Mr. Lester filed various motions.  Relevant here, he filed a motion to suppress all the evidence derived from the officers’ protective sweep and his marijuana admission on Fourth Amendment and Miranda grounds.  Mr. Lester also filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence that he used the same pistol to commit three violent crimes in the months before his arrest.  The district court denied Mr. Lester’s suppression motion after determining the arresting officers hadn’t violated his rights.  But the court granted Mr. Lester’s motion in limine, reasoning that any mention at trial of his prior violent acts would be unfairly prejudicial.

Mr. Lester was like Uber-Eats … but for Cocaine

At trial, one of the officers described how he arrested Mr. Lester and found crack cocaine and cash in his pockets.  Another officer explained how he obtained the search warrant and found the pistol, scale, and marijuana.  Ms. Phillips swore under oath that she did not own the gun.  And Ms. Siara Dowdy—one of Ms. Phillips’s friends who also knew Mr. Lester through Ms. Phillips—testified she saw Mr. Lester with the same pistol four days before his arrest, when he came to her house to sell her father cocaine.

Mr. Lester Sentenced to Ten Years in Federal Prison

The jury convicted Mr. Lester, and the district court sentenced him to 120 months in prison.  Because Mr. Lester violated the supervised-release conditions for his earlier ammunition-possession conviction, the court imposed an additional seventeen-month prison sentence to be served consecutively.

Pre-trial claims

Mr. Lester argues the district court should’ve granted his motion to suppress.  Specifically, he asserts that the arresting officers violated:  (A) his Miranda rights when they questioned him before issuing a warning; and (B) his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches when they searched his motel room before obtaining a warrant.

Miranda Appeal

The Fifth Amendment provides that “[N]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  U.S. Const. amend. V.  To protect this right, the Supreme Court has held that in certain contexts, police must issue Miranda warnings before interrogating a suspect in their custody.  See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 479 (1966).

Was the Officer’s Questions Violative of Miranda?

Mr. Lester argues the arresting officer violated that rule.  Before informing Mr. Lester of his Miranda rights, the officer asked Mr. Lester during the pat-down if there was “anything else on you, any other drugs, anything that would stick or harm me.”  Mr. Lester’s response:  “No, just some weed in the room.”   On appeal, Mr. Lester argues that this unwarned admission and the fruits of that admission—most importantly, the .40 caliber pistol in the motel room—should’ve been suppressed.  We disagree.

[A]n interaction doesn’t transform into an “interrogation” merely because a suspect voluntarily offers an “unexpected and unresponsive” answer.

Marijuana Statement:  First, Miranda doesn’t apply.  That’s because Miranda only governs “interrogations.”  Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 297–98 (1980).  And police questioning isn’t an “interrogation” when an officer asks about information “he was already entitled to know” through a search incident to arrest.  United States v. Woods, 711 F.3d 737, 740–42 (6th Cir. 2013).  That’s exactly what happened here.  Since the officer had just arrested Mr. Lester, the officer inevitably would have discovered any items on Mr. Lester’s person.  See United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235 (1973).  Thus, the officer was entitled to ask about those items.  Woods, 711 F.3d at 741 (“To say that Officer Mardigian had the right to physically go through Woods’s pockets but could not simply ask him ‘What is in your pocket?’ would be illogical.”).  To be sure, Mr. Lester responded to the officer’s question with self-incriminating evidence about something that wasn’t on his person.  But an interaction doesn’t transform into an “interrogation” merely because a suspect voluntarily offers an “unexpected and unresponsive” answer.  see also Innis, 446 U.S. at 301–02.  Thus, the officer’s question wasn’t an interrogation, and Miranda doesn’t apply.

.40 Caliber Pistol

Un-Mirandized Statements do NOT Exclude Physical Fruits

Mr. Lester also claims the pistol recovered from the motel room should’ve been suppressed. That’s because, he argues, the search warrant was supported by his marijuana admission. But the marijuana admission didn’t violate Miranda, so Mr. Lester’s pistol-suppression argument lacks its essential premise. What’s more, not even a Miranda violation would’ve been enough to exclude the pistol—or any of the other physical evidence discovered in the motel room.  Miranda errors don’t “require the suppression of the [physical] fruits of a[n] un-Mirandized statement,” so long as the statement was voluntary.  Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. 134, 145–46, 146 n.3; accord United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630, 634 (2004) (plurality opinion); id. at 644–45 (Kennedy, J., concurring in the judgment) (“Admission of nontestimonial physical fruits . . . does not run the risk of [violating the Fifth Amendment].”).  Mr. Lester’s gun is undoubtedly “physical.”  Patane, 542 U.S. at 634 (plurality opinion); id. at 645 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment).  And Mr. Lester doesn’t argue that his answer to the officer’s question was involuntary.  See id. at 634 (plurality opinion).  Thus, the court correctly admitted the gun at trial.

Fourth Amendment

Protective Sweep

Mr. Lester also challenges the protective sweep that the officers conducted to ensure nobody else was present in Mr. Lester’s room who might threaten officer safety during the arrest.  See Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 334–36 (1990).  Because the officers didn’t have a warrant, Mr. Lester argues the sweep violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.  And because the officers referenced the scale they saw during the sweep in their search warrant application, Mr. Lester argues that any fruits of the subsequent search should’ve been suppressed.

Mr. Lester had Meritless Legal Arguments because he was Walking Probable Cause

Mr. Lester’s arguments are meritless.  Even assuming the sweep was unconstitutional, the Government still would have obtained the evidence through other, independent means.  See Murray v. United States, 487 U.S. 533, 537–44 (1988).  The officers testified at the suppression hearing that they would’ve applied for the search warrant even if they hadn’t swept the room or seen the scale.  And without the sweep and scale, they had ample evidence to secure a warrant:  Mr. Lester had crack cocaine in his pocket as he walked out of the motel room, and he admitted there were more drugs—marijuana—inside.  That’s enough to give the officers probable cause.  Accordingly, there was an independent source for the fruits of the search, and the court was correct to admit this evidence.

Information for this article was obtained from U.S. v. Lester, Nos. 22 – 6076/6077. 

U.S. v. Lester, Nos. 22 – 6076/6077 was issued on April 16, 2024 and is binding in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Lessons Learned:

  1. No Miranda? No Problem! Law enforcement often asks suspects prior to a pat down or search if the suspect has anything sharp on their person that may stick the officer.  In this case, Mr. Lester argued that when the officer asked him this question it violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  Lester responded to this question by admitting there was marijuana within the hotel room.  The court dismissed Mr. Lester’s Miranda argument “But an interaction doesn’t transform into an “interrogation” merely because a suspect voluntarily offers an “unexpected and unresponsive” answer.
  2. Miranda Applies to Testimonial Evidence – Lester also argued that because the officer violated his Fifth Amendment Rights against self-incrimination the .40 handgun should be a fruit of the poisonous tree and dismissed. However, in 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this very issued when it held “[U]nlike unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment or actual violations of the Due Process Clause or the Self-Incrimination Clause, there is, with respect to mere failures, nothing to deter.  There is therefore no reason to apply the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine … [W]e have held that the word ‘witness’ in the constitutional text limits the scope of the Self-Incrimination Clause to testimonial evidence.”  U.S. v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004). Consequently, Miranda violations [which there were not in this case] applies to testimonial evidence.
  3. Protective Sweep Doctrine Lester argued that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights when the conducted a protective sweep of the hotel room in the Memphis Villa Inn. However, in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court held “We … hold that as incident to the arrest the officer could, as a precautionary matter and without probable cause or without reasonable suspicion look in closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched.”.  Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990).  The Protective Sweep Doctrine is THE most under-utilized legal doctrine in all of law enforcement and once an in-home arrest is made, officers do NOT need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to conduct the sweep.  This is the only legal doctrine that I am aware where an officer is not required to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause to conduct a search.  For more on the Protective Sweep Doctrine see Does this Red Jogging Suit Make Me Look Felonious?
  4. Pre-Sent Arms! The S. Marshals Violent Fugitive Task Force should be highly commended for their professionalism.  Well done team!

Does your agency train on Pat Downs and Custodial Interrogation?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.