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United States v. Elias

argued: October 2, 1987.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania - Pittsburgh, D.C. Docket Crim. No. 86-00268.

Seitz, Greenberg and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter


HUNTER, Circuit Judge:

1. Appellant Hadi Hanna-Habib Elias sought suppression of physical evidence found in his car and of a statement made prior to being advised of his Miranda rights. After a hearing, the District Court denied suppression of both the evidence and the statement. Elias thereafter entered a conditional guilty plea to the charge of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, reserving the right to appeal the denial of suppression. Because we find the District Court to have committed clear error with regard to the statement, we will reverse in part, vacate the judgment of conviction of the District Court, and remand for further factual findings on the question of whether Elias was in police "custody" for purposes of his right to Miranda warnings at the time of his statement.


2. The following recitation of facts is based on the essentially undisputed parts of the record of the suppression hearing. Following a rash of burglaries and incidents of vandalism, the New Castle, Pa. School District hired Constable Anthony Mangino to patrol the New Castle schools and prevent unauthorized persons from remaining on school grounds after hours. During such a patrol, Constable Mangino discovered appellant and a female companion parked in the driveway behind the Lockley School in New Castle. Mangino, wearing a uniform but in an unmarked car, drove up and parked directly in front of Elias's car, with his high beams on and directed towards Elias. He then asked Elias why he was parked in the school driveway and asked to see a driver's license and vehicle registration.

3. Elias produced a California license which appeared to have expired and which seemed to have had the address entry manually altered; he did not produce any vehicle registration. He attempted to explain the irregularities of the license, and told Mangino that although he resided in California, he had purchased the car in Texas. Mangino noted that the rear license plate was a cardboard temporary plate apparently issued in Texas, which also seemed to have been tampered with. After an unsuccessful attempt to check the vehicle's registration with the New Castle Police Department, Mangino requested police assistance.

4. Officer Ronald Williams soon arrived at the scene, parking his car directly behind Elias's, so that Elias's car was sandwiched between the two other cars and could not be moved. After Mangino explained the situation to him, Williams began questioning Elias about the license irregularities. He thereafter discovered that the temporary Texas license plate covered a permanent license plate issued in California which had expired. At some point during this time Elias asked to be allowed to leave; his request was denied because the car had not yet been cleared. Williams did allow Elias to get out of the car, but warned him to keep his hands in plain view and not to make any sudden movements.

5. When Elias opened the car door, the car's internal light came on, and Williams noticed that a briefcase and a "scale case" were in the back seat. Williams recognized the scale case as the type which normally contains a scale used in the sale of drugs. Williams then asked Elias if he could search the car, and Elias consented. Before a search had begun, apparently, Elias pulled the briefcase out of the car, placed it on the roof, and quickly opened and closed it in order to show Williams that it contained no weapons. While the briefcase was open, however, Williams had noticed a large sum of money in one compartment, and a brown paper bag in another. The bag contained smaller clear plastic bags, which in turn appeared to contain a white powdery substance. Williams then asked Elias what was in the bag, and Elias responded: "That's my personal coke." At this point Elias had not yet been informed of his rights under Miranda.

6. Upon Elias's statement, Williams placed Elias under arrest and read him the Miranda warnings. Williams then asked Elias to unlock and reopen the briefcase, and then called the police department for assistance. Another officer arrived, and drove Elias to the police station. Williams stayed behind, and with the help of other officers searched the rest of the vehicle. More cocaine was found in a duffel bag behind the driver's seat; the total amount of cocaine found in the car was close to two pounds, and over $16,000 in cash was also found.

7. At a pretrial hearing, Elias sought to suppress the evidence of the cocaine and the case as well as his inculpatory statement. The District Court held that there had been no illegal search or seizure, and refused to suppress the evidence. With regard to the statement, the court denied suppression solely on the grounds that Elias had made a "spontaneous utterance." The record of the hearing shows that the court repeatedly characterized the statement as spontaneous, and at one point asserted that it "was not elicited by questioning." Appendix at 332. When defense counsel stated its position that Elias had been subjected to custodial interrogation for purposes of Miranda, the court responded:

I say it was not a custodial interrogation because it was an uninvited ...

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