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United States v. Benjamin

July 26, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
NATHANIEL BENJAMIN



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

During a September 19, 2008 search of Nathaniel Benjamin's residence at 534 East Marshall Street in Norristown, Pennsylvania, parole agents uncovered drugs and guns. Benjamin was on parole at the time of the search. The Government indicted Benjamin for possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He has moved to suppress the physical evidence uncovered during the search as well as a statement he made to a parole officer about the location of a gun in his residence. On July 8, 2010, the Court held a suppression hearing. For the reasons below, the Court denies the motion to suppress the physical evidence but will grant the motion to suppress Benjamin's statement.

I. BACKGROUND

Parole Agent Harry Gaab was the only person to testify at the suppression hearing. He is a fifteen year veteran of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and has been trained in a variety of law enforcement areas, including firearms and criminal behavior. As a parol agent, he has conducted several hundred searches and at any given time, supervises eight-five to one hundred parolees. The Court finds his testimony credible.

Upon Benjamin's release from prison after a state conviction for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, he was placed under the supervision of Agent Gaab. As a condition of his parole, Benjamin signed a standard parole form. He agreed to remain in the Chester District, which encompassed the Pennsylvania counties of Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester but did not include Philadelphia County, unless he received prior written permission from his supervisor; to maintain an approved residence at 534 East Marshall Street in Norristown with his fiancée, Stacy Esprit, unless he received prior permission to move; and to abstain from the unlawful possession or sale of illegal drugs. He also agreed to refrain from owning or possessing any firearms or other weapons; to abstain from consuming or possessing alcohol under any condition or for any reason; to refrain from operating a car without a valid Pennsylvania driver's license, proper registration, proof of insurance, and his supervising agent's permission; to refrain from associating with drug users or dealers; and to refrain from possessing a cell phone, pager, or drug paraphernalia. In exchange for being paroled, he expressly consented to warrantless searches of his person, property, and residence by agents of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

On September 4, 2008, Philadelphia Homicide Detective Gary White informed Gaab that Benjamin was a suspect in a drug-related killing that happened in the Frankford section of Philadelphia on August 28, 2008. Witnesses placed Benjamin at the scene shortly before the killing although Detective White did not believe that Benjamin pulled the trigger. Detective White told Gaab that Benjamin was associated with the shooting victim, Shaun Lowe, who was a drug dealer. White further informed Gaab that Benjamin was living in Philadelphia and was driving a white Chevrolet Impala and had a gray Nissan. Benjamin denied any involvement in the shooting when he was questioned by homicide detectives.

Following the call, Gaab went to Benjamin's approved residence at 534 East Marshall Street in Norristown where he saw a white Chevrolet Impala parked just outside the house. Gaab took down the tag and ran it through the PennDOT system. He learned that the vehicle was registered to a "James Burch" at the East Marshall Street address. Gaab then searched for the name "James Burch" in the PennDOT system and a picture of Benjamin appeared. At that time, Benjamin did not have permission to drive nor did Gaab authorize him to have a driver's license. In the summer of 2008, however, Benjamin had permission to work at a cell phone retail store in Philadelphia.

On September 4, 2008, Benjamin made an unexpected visit to Gaab's office. Gaab asked Benjamin if he recently had any contact with police, and Benjamin said that he had not. Meanwhile, another parole agent saw the white Chevrolet Impala registered to James Burch in the parking lot of the parole office; the vehicle had several empty beer cans inside. Another agent saw Benjamin in the car. An agent also saw a gray Nissan Altima near Benjamin's home on September 4, 2008. Agent Gaab saw this same vehicle near the home the next day. Benjamin was never seen driving this car.

Prior to Detective White's call, but while he was still on parole, Benjamin had been seen with numerous vehicles. For example, in December of 2007, Benjamin was seen exiting a gray Camaro registered to James Burch. A navy blue Crown Victoria registered to James Burch was also seen parked next to Defendant's residence though he was never seen operating the vehicle or even around it. In May of 2008, Benjamin was seen working on an older model SUV or minivan registered to James Burch. Benjamin reported to Gaab that that particular vehicle belonged to his wife, which Gaab understood to mean it was Esprit's car. In August of 2008, Benjamin was seen working on a beige Lexus registered to James Burch, though he was never seen driving the car. At some point, Gaab also saw Benjamin using a cell phone.

On or about September 15, 2008, Gaab received his supervisor's permission to search Benjamin's residence and cars for evidence of parole violations. On September 19, 2008, six agents, including Gaab, and two supervisors from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole searched Benjamin's residence at 534 East Marshall Street in Norristown. Gaab knocked loudly on the front door a few times but nobody answered. He proceeded to the rear of the house where he heard a man and a woman whispering inside. Gaab knocked on the back door and eventually Stacy Esprit opened the door. Benjamin was in the kitchen area, which was in the back of the house. Benjamin was handcuffed and though Esprit was not handcuffed, several agents remained with her at all times while the residence was secured.

During the search, one agent found a black bag underneath the bed. The bag contained pistol targets, as well as eye and ear protections for a pistol range. Inside a shoe box located upstairs, Gaab located a shoe box that contained a gun box. There was no gun inside however and so Gaab returned downstairs. Gaab asked Benjamin who James Burch was and Esprit retrieved the keys to a number of vehicles so they could be searched. Gaab took Benjamin to the front porch and he asked Benjamin for the location of the gun. Benjamin initially denied having a gun, but when Gaab asked him again, he admitted that Esprit must have moved it from the dining room table just prior to the search. Esprit then took agents downstairs and showed them the location of the gun. The search of the home uncovered approximately 6.62 grams of crack, approximately 326.93 grams of marijuana, rubber gloves, plastic baggies, a digital scale, a loaded 9mm pistol, 9mm ammunition, and evidence that Benjamin had been to a firing range. Agents also found identification in the name of both James Burch and Nathaniel Benjamin, as well as multiple car titles and registrations and mail in the name of both James Burch and Nathaniel Benjamin. The three vehicles registered to Burch were also found near the Norristown address. The search of the vehicles uncovered some empty alcohol cans and some cell phone boxes but nothing that Gaab considered to be contraband.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The movant bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence in question should be suppressed. United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing United States v. Acosta, 965 F.2d 1248, 1256 n.9 (3d Cir. 1992)). Once the defendant establishes that the police conducted a warrantless search, ...


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