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United States v. Harris

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 28, 2014



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

On November 12, 2013, the grand jury returned a two-count indictment against defendant Asia M. Harris ("defendant") charging her with the following: making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm on or about August 16, 2011, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) (Count One); and aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon from on or about August 16, 2011, to on or about October 16, 2013, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§922(g)(1) and 2(a) (Count Two).

Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress Statements (Document No. 23), in which she argues that statements she made to agents of the FBI and the Allegheny County Police should be suppressed because they were obtained in the absence of a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of her rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The government subsequently filed its Response to defendant's Motion to Suppress (Document No. 25), and a hearing on this matter was held on April 9, 2014. After considering the evidence presented at the hearing and the arguments of counsel, defendant's suppression motion will be denied for the reasons explained below.

I. Background

At the suppression hearing, the government presented the testimony of Detectives Brett Wittenberger and Jonathan Love of the Allegheny County Police and FBI Special Agent Brian Murphy. Defendant testified on her own behalf at the hearing. The evidence received at the hearing establishes the facts that follow.

On October 16, 2013, Detectives Wittenberger and Love, along with other law enforcement agents, executed a search warrant at 96 Stratmore Avenue in Pittsburgh, which is the residence defendant shared with her husband, Mark Brazil. A loaded.40 caliber firearm was found in the master bedroom and a magazine with ten rounds of.40 caliber ammunition was located in a second bedroom.

During the course of the search, Detectives Wittenberger and Love conducted a 15-20 minute interview of defendant on her back porch while other agents interviewed Brazil on the front porch. Both detectives testified that defendant was not restrained or taken into custody and was advised that she was free to leave. In addition, no threats or promises were made to defendant, but she was advised that she could potentially face charges if the information she provided was not truthful.

The detectives explained to defendant that they had recovered the firearm and ammunition, and advised her that Brazil was a convicted felon who was prohibited from owning firearms. Initially, defendant maintained that the gun belonged to her and denied that Brazil had handled it. However, after the detectives told defendant that the firearm would be subject to forensic testing, she told them more about Brazil's involvement with the weapon and admitted that he may have handled it on occasion.

After defendant's interview with Detectives Wittenberger and Love, she eventually spoke with Brazil in the living room area of the house. Detective Wittenberger, who was in the living room during that conversation, heard defendant state that she knew Brazil was a convicted felon and that he gave her money and told her to buy the gun.

FBI Agent Murphy testified that he did not participate in the execution of the warrant, but was present at defendant's residence on the morning the search occurred. When Agent Murphy arrived, he observed defendant in the kitchen area and was aware that Detectives Wittenberger and Love already had interviewed her.

Agent Murphy testified that defendant asked to speak with him. Agent Murphy agreed to speak with defendant, but reminded her that she already had been interviewed and advised that he would make a report of anything she discussed with him, which potentially could be used against her. Agent Murphy further advised defendant that she was not under arrest and that she was free to leave if she wished.

The conversation between Agent Murphy and defendant occurred in the kitchen area and lasted approximately 20 minutes. She told Agent Murphy about her background, current employment status and career goal in the area of law enforcement. Defendant also told Agent Murphy how she met Brazil and eventually married him, acknowledged that she knew he was a convicted felon, and indicated she was not pleased that Brazil had involved her in the instant matter.

Agent Murphy reminded defendant that any statements she made to him were voluntary and that she did not have to speak with him, but she continued to talk. Defendant explained to Agent Murphy that she and Brazil drove to Gander Mountain together, she went into the store, took a photograph of the gun, exited the store and showed the photograph to Brazil. Brazil confirmed that was the correct gun and gave defendant $800 to purchase it. Defendant further explained that the gun was purchased in her name, but it was intended for Brazil. Following the search of the residence and the interviews, neither defendant nor Brazil were taken into custody that day.

Defendant's version of her interview with the law enforcement agents differs somewhat from the accounts of Detectives Wittenberger and Love and Agent Murphy. Defendant testified that she felt she had to speak with Detectives Wittenberger and Love and answer their questions, and she did not believe she was free to leave. According to defendant, although Detective Love was fairly professional, he raised his voice when inquiring whether the ...

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