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United States v. Steele

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 20, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Matthew Douglas Steele, Defendant.

          Katharine T. Buzicky, Esq., Assistant United States Attorney, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Reynaldo A. Aligada, Jr., Esq., Assistant Federal Public Defender, counsel for Defendant.


          BECKY R. THORSON, United States Magistrate Judge.


         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Pretrial Motion to Suppress Statements (Doc. No. 26). On August 9, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the motion at which the parties were represented by counsel. At the hearing, Special Agent Katie Booth from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (“BCA”) testified concerning the circumstances surrounding Defendant's statements that are the subject of the Motion to Suppress Statements. The Government offered and the Court received in evidence several exhibits, including several photographs, a transcript of the February 6, 2017 interview, and a disk containing a recording of the February 6, 2017 interview. The parties submitted post-hearing briefing as ordered by the Court. (Doc. Nos. 40, 42.) As discussed below, the Court recommends that Defendant's motion be denied.


         On February 6, 2017, just after 7:00 a.m., Special Agent Booth and approximately ten other law-enforcement officers executed a search warrant at Defendant's home. (Tr. 9-11.) The search warrant was based on information that child pornography had been downloaded from an IP address at Defendant's home.[2] (Tr. 36.) Special Agent Booth testified that they needed a large team to execute the warrant because they needed the manpower to conduct the search and do other duties (i.e., conduct interviews, take photographs, continue the search, secure the premises, and for computer forensics work) once they were in the house and because when entering a home they do not know exactly how many individuals they may encounter. (Tr. 10-11.) The majority of the officers were from the Minnesota BCA, and a couple deputies were from Ramsey County. (Tr. 10.) The BCA officers were wearing khaki pants, a black polo with the BCA insignia and a badge stitched on it, and raid vests with a big patch on the front that says “Police” in big, yellow letters. (Tr. 11, 38.) They had weapons drawn, and after entry into the home they were holstered to either their hip or on their side. (Tr. 11.) The raid vests were also removed after the initial entrance into the home. (Id.) The Ramsey County officers were wearing official uniforms with a badge on the front and a gun on their hip. (Tr. 38.)

         Upon arrival, after knocking on the front door, the officers called into the home; Defendant's mother answered, unlocked the front door, and allowed the officers to enter. (Tr. 13.) After entering, Special Agent Booth and her supervisor Special Agent Florell went down in the basement to find Defendant Steele, where his mother had said he would be. (Tr. 13-14.) They proceeded down a hallway to Defendant's bedroom door, likely yelling “Search warrant, Police, Search warrant, ” pursuant to normal practice. (Tr. 41.) Special Agent Florell then pushed the bedroom door open to enter, but Defendant tried to close the door. (Tr. 15.) Florell put his foot out to stop the door from being shut, and when he did so his foot went through the hollow door. (Tr. 15.) At that point, Special Agent Booth told Defendant that they had a search warrant and that they wished to talk to him. (Tr. 16.) She testified that she wanted things to settle down at that point, so she first allowed Defendant some privacy to get dressed and use the restroom.[3] (Id.) She then asked Defendant if they could go outside to have a conversation. (Id.) Defendant told Special Agent Booth that was okay. (Id.) Special Agent Booth testified that it would have been difficult to conduct an interview inside the house because of the clutter and lack of cleanliness of the home, because Mrs. Steele was in the living room, there were special agents using the kitchen table space, one room had cats in it, another room had dogs in it, and the garage was both full and cold due to the weather. (Tr. 17-18.) Therefore, she suggested that they go out to her vehicle, a Dodge minivan, [4] for the conversation. (Tr. 18, 23.) Before heading outside, the officers ensured that Defendant had a coat on and allowed him to grab something to drink. (Tr. 31-32.)

         In the vehicle, Special Agent Giguere[5] was seated in the front driver's seat, Special Agent Booth was seated directly behind him, and Defendant was seated in the passenger-side backseat across from Special Agent Booth. (Tr. 24.) The third row in the van was occupied by clothes hanging and other miscellaneous things. (Id.) The van had sliding doors on both sides of the vehicle, so each person was seated next to an unlocked door. (Tr. 48-49.) Special Agent Booth sat sideways on her seat so she could face Defendant during the interview; therefore, her holstered weapon was on her side lodged between her body and the seat. (Tr. 25.) Special Agent Giguere's weapon was also probably not visible to Defendant from where they were sitting. (Id.) There were several other unmarked police vehicles in the vicinity, as well as a marked forensics van, and there were agents moving back and forth between the mobile forensics lab and the house. (Tr. 26, 47.)

         Special Agent Booth introduced herself to Defendant and advised Defendant that he did not have to speak with her if he did not want to, and that he was free to leave. (Tr. 21.) Special Agent Booth then told Defendant he could leave, go back in the house, or take a vehicle once the cars were cleared. (Tr. 22.) Defendant did not tell Special Agent Booth that he wanted to do any of those things. Specifically, the transcript of the recorded interview indicates that Special Agent Booth's exact words were as follows:

[W]e have a search warrant here today for your house in regards to some, things that we're kind of seeing and I wanted to take a moment to see if you're willing to talk to us about it. Once again, um you are not under arrest. Um if you don't want to talk to me you don't have to . . . Um we'll have you go sit back in the house if you want. Um if you want to leave, you're welcome to do that. Um the vehicles have to be searched and then you'd be eligible to take the vehicle with you or you could walk down the street if you wanted to leave prior to us finishing the search of your vehicles.

(See Doc. No. 32, Gov't Ex. 10, 2/6/17 Interivew Transcript (“Tr.”) 1.) Special Agent Booth then asked Defendant, “So knowing that you're not under arrest and you don't have to speak with me if you don't want to um are you willing to have a conversation with me?” (Id.) Defendant responded, “Sure.” (Id.)

         Special Agent Booth then proceeded to tell Defendant about the information that she had pursuant to the investigation and proceeded with questioning.[6] (Id.) The interview lasted for approximately 45 to 60 minutes. (Tr. 32.) During the interview, Defendant made statements (which he now seeks to suppress) that led to the discovery of incriminating evidence. At the end of the interview, Special Agent Booth asked Defendant if she had told him he was not under arrest, and he acknowledged that she had. (Tr. 49.) He also acknowledged that the agents had not threatened or coerced him or made him any promises. (Id.) And he confirmed that he understood that he was free to leave. (Id.) After the conclusion of the interview (and the discovery of the ...

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