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United States v. Blackwell

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 27, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ALEXANDER LEVI BLACKWELL, Defendant.

          Katharine T. Buzicky, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, for plaintiff.

          Reynaldo A. Aligada, Jr., OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL DEFENDER, for defendant.

          ORDER

          Patrick J. Schiltz United States District Judge

         Defendant Alexander Blackwell has been charged with various child- pornography offenses. Blackwell has moved to suppress (1) physical evidence obtained as a result of a search of Blackwell's vehicle at the Canadian border by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”); (2) statements made by Blackwell to CBP agents on the day of the search; and (3) statements made by Blackwell to an agent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) more than two years after the search.

         This matter is before the Court on Blackwell's objection to the October 30, 2018 Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of Magistrate Judge Leo I. Brisbois. Judge Brisbois recommends denying Blackwell's motions to suppress. The Court has conducted a de novo review. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3). Based on that review, the Court overrules Blackwell's objection, adopts the R&R, and denies the motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 4, 2015, Blackwell visited the International Peace Garden, which is located on the border between the United States and Canada near Dunseith, North Dakota. ECF No. 48 at 14-16, 21-22. In order to visit the Peace Garden, Blackwell crossed the border into Canada-and then, following his visit, he attempted to re-enter the United States at the Dunseith Port of Entry. Id. at 14-22. At the Port of Entry, Blackwell was subject to a primary inspection, during which a CBP agent searched for Blackwell's name in various databases and discovered that Blackwell was on probation. Id. at 22-23, 42-44; Gov. Ex. 7. Pursuant to Dunseith Port of Entry policies, Blackwell was required to submit to a secondary inspection. ECF No. 48 at 22-23, 43-44. That secondary inspection involved a search of Blackwell's vehicle and additional questioning of Blackwell by CBP agents. Id. at 23-24, 29-30.

         During both the primary and secondary inspections, Blackwell was asked why he had visited the Peace Garden. ECF No. 48 at 26-27. Blackwell first told CBP agents that he had attended a concert featuring his niece, who (he said) was participating in a music camp at the Peace Garden. Id. He then changed his story and said that he had attended a concert featuring a friend. Id. And then he changed his story again and said that he had attended a concert featuring a friend's daughter. Id.

         During the search of Blackwell's vehicle, CBP agents found girls' clothing and an envelope addressed to “HLB” from “ALB” (Blackwell's initials). ECF No. 48 at 30-31; ECF No. 65 at 11-13. Inside the envelope, [1] CBP agents found a letter that began “Hello my dearest Hailey.” ECF No. 65 at 15. CBP agents testified that the letter “was basically a love letter.” ECF No. 48 at 31.

         CBP agents contacted the staff at the music camp and asked if they had a camper with the first name “Hailey” and the initials “HLB.” ECF No. 48 at 32-33. The staff reported that one of their juvenile campers had a matching name and initials. Id. CBP agents decided to detain Blackwell until he could be questioned by a DHS agent. Id. at 33. No DHS agents were stationed at the Dunseith Port of Entry, however, so Blackwell was told that he would have to wait for a DHS agent to travel to the Port of Entry. Id. at 35-36.

         At this point, Blackwell had been detained for about an hour. ECF No. 48 at 32- 33. DHS Special Agent Randy Helderop arrived about four and a half hours later. Id. at 65. While Blackwell was waiting for Special Agent Helderop to arrive, Blackwell made one noteworthy statement: After overhearing CBP agents talking in an adjacent room about “HLB's” identity, Blackwell spontaneously confirmed her name when a CBP agent later checked on him. Id. at 36.

         After arriving at the Dunseith Port of Entry, Special Agent Helderop attempted to interview Blackwell, but Blackwell refused to answer any additional questions. ECF No. 48 at 65-69. Special Agent Helderop did, however, interview HLB that evening. Id. at 69-73. Based on her statements and the evidence found in Blackwell's vehicle (the girls' clothing, envelope, and letter), law-enforcement agents obtained warrants authorizing the search of other property owned by Blackwell. Id. at 74-78. Further incriminating evidence was found during those searches, and Blackwell was charged with two counts of attempted production of child pornography, one count of production and attempted production of child pornography, and three counts of transferring obscene materials to minors. ECF No. 18.

         Blackwell was arrested on November 16, 2017 in Union, South Carolina. ECF No. 48 at 85-86, 106. While Blackwell was being transported from Union to Greenville, South Carolina, he was interviewed over the phone by Special Agent Helderop. Id. at 86-88, 106-09. Blackwell was given a Miranda warning before he spoke to Special Agent Helderop. Id. at 110-12; Gov. Ex. 10.

         Blackwell now contends that the physical evidence seized at the border-as well as the physical evidence later seized pursuant to the warrants-should be suppressed. Blackwell also seeks to suppress certain statements that he made to CBP agents on July 4, 2015, and to Special Agent Helderop on November 16, 2017.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Physical Evidence Seized During (And as a Result Of) the July 4, 2015 Border Search

         Blackwell's main contention is that the R&R erred in finding that the search of the envelope and letter found in his vehicle was a “routine” border search and thus, like all routine border searches, was “not subject to any requirement of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or warrant.” United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985). Blackwell contends that the search of the envelope and letter was not routine in light of federal statutes and regulations, Fourth Amendment case law, and the rationale for the border-search exception to the Fourth Amendment. Consequently, argues ...


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