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United States v. McNeil

January 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court are various motions filed by the defendant. Having been fully briefed, they are ripe for disposition.


On October 13, 2009, a grand jury in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania returned an indictment naming the defendant on six counts. Count I accuses the defendant of engaging in a conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute in excess of one hundred kilograms of marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(B). Count II charges defendant with violating 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 by possessing marijuana with intent to deliver. Count III alleges that defendant used a communications facility in the commission of a felony under the Controlled Substances Act in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). Count IV charges defendant of possession of a firearm while being an unlawful user of controlled substances in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). Count V contends that defendant violated 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 by using a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes. Count VI seeks forfeiture of property used in the alleged crimes pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 853.

Defendant filed the instant evidentiary motions in preparation of the pre-trial conference. The government then responded to those motions, bringing the case to its present posture.


The court will address each motion filed by the defendant in turn.

i. Defendant's Motion to Suppress

Defendant seeks to suppress statements taken from him after his vehicle was subjected to a traffic stop on April 12, 2008. After state troopers stopped defendant for driving without a license, he allegedly volunteered to them information about drugs in his residence. Using this information, police obtained a search warrant and seized marijuana, U.S. currency, digital scales, a rifle and marijuana packaging material. Defendant contends that he was arrested at this stop and therefore in custody at the time of his statement. That interview, he insists, occurred without the benefit of Miranda warnings or the presence of counsel and should be suppressed. The government argues that defendant was not arrested, but merely subjected to a routine traffic stop. Since the law is well-settled that a person detained for a traffic stop is not in custody for Miranda purposes, the statements should not be suppressed.

The Supreme Court has held that the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment "[bars] the introduction in federal cases of involuntary confessions made in response to custodial interrogation." Withrow v. Williams, 507 U.S. 680, 688 (1993). Courts have found that "a statement is involuntary when the suspect's 'will was overborne in such a way as to render his confession the product of coercion.'" Choi Chi Lam v. Kelchner, 304 F.3d 256, 264 (3d Cir. 2002). To determine whether a confession was voluntary, "courts look to the totality of the circumstances." Withrow, 507 U.S. at 693. Such "potential circumstances include not only the crucial elements of police coercion," but also "the length of interrogation; its continuity; the defendant's maturity, education, physical condition, and mental health, [and] . . . the failure of the police to advise the defendant of his rights to remain silent and to have counsel present during custodial interrogation." Id. at 693-94 (internal citations omitted).

There is no dispute here that defendant was not advised of his rights before he made his statement. At issue, however, is whether defendant was actually in custody when he spoke with police after the traffic stop. "[C]ustodial interrogation" is "'questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.'" Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 494 (1977) (quoting Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966)). Though the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that normally "the principles of Miranda have been held not to apply to the traffic stop context." United States v. Anderson, 859 F.2d 1171, 1177 (3d Cir. 1988), the Supreme Court has found that "[i]f a motorist has been detained pursuant to a traffic stop thereafter is subjected to treatment that renders him 'in custody' for practical purposes, he will be entitled to the full panoply of protections prescribed by Miranda." Berkemer v. McCarthy, 468 US. 420, 440 (1984); see also, United States v. Elias, 832 F.2d 24, 26-27 (3d Cir. 1987). The court must therefore inquire into "how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation" to determine whether the traffic stop constituted a routine stop or at some point transformed into a situation where defendant was "in custody" for Miranda purposes. Berkemer, 468 U.S. at 441.

Such an inquiry will require testimony from witnesses to determine the context of defendant's statements. The court will therefore schedule a hearing on defendant's motion. The defendant should be prepared to present witnesses at that time. The court will thereafter make a decision as to whether the statements were made at a time when defendant was in custody, and thus whether they should be suppressed. The accompanying order will provide a date for the hearing.

ii. Motion to Exclude Latent Prints Expert

In this case, officers seized a firearm from the residence shared by the defendants in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. An examiner from the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services tested the firearm for the presence of latent fingerprints and found no prints on the weapon. The government represents that it has supplied the defendant with a copy of this report and intends to call the examiner to testify at trial. The government avers that the latent print examiner will testify based on her training ...

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