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United States v. Burns

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

May 27, 2014



NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress any statements or admissions made on March 27, 2013, subsequent to his arrest that morning, asserting that his statements were involuntary because they were obtained by threats to arrest his wife. The government responded to the motion and the parties' arguments have been heard. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is denied.


The record, including testimony presented at the hearing on the suppression motion, discloses the following facts regarding Defendant's arrest and the ensuing interviews.

Federal and local law enforcement officers scheduled March 27, 2013, as the date upon which they would attempt to arrest a number of individuals, including Defendant, who had been indicted by a federal grand jury on drug conspiracy charges. The investigation was referred to as "Operation Pain Train." Pursuant to a separate investigation of Defendant, who was suspected of having fraudulently reported a burglary to obtain an insurance payment, state law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant to search Defendant's residence in Bedford, Virginia. The officers planned to execute the arrest and the search simultaneously.

Around 7:00 o'clock that morning, Defendant's wife, Tara Burns ("Ms. Burns"), departed the marital residence for work. Some distance from the home, several law enforcement officers stopped her car. Ms. Burns was informed that she had done nothing wrong, but that the officers had a warrant to search her home, and they wanted her to call Defendant to convince him to leave his home. One reason for persuading him to leave the house was that law enforcement officers might otherwise break down the door to the residence. Using her cell phone, Ms. Burns contacted Defendant and persuaded him to leave the house, and he was arrested by Bedford County Deputy Juette Renalds pursuant to a federal arrest warrant. Defendant was advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Defendant was taken to the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, where he was again advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda, and he was interviewed about the drug conspiracy by Investigator Chris Cook and Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA") Ashley Neese.

After her husband was arrested, Ms. Burns resumed traveling to work in Lynchburg, first dropping her children off at various places. The trip took about an hour and, right when she arrived at her workplace, she received a call from Investigator Cook, who insisted that she meet that morning with law enforcement officers at the Bedford County Sheriff's Office.

Accompanied by her mother-in-law, Ms. Burns arrived at the Bedford County Sheriff's Office after Defendant's first interview. Ms. Burns was interviewed by Investigator Cook and AUSA Neese. She states that she was never threatened. Ms. Burns was then interviewed a second time by Detective Sara Dryden, who questioned her about a purported burglary that had occurred at the Burns residence, which Detective Dryden was investigating as a potential case of insurance fraud. Detective Dryden told Ms. Burns that if she did not tell the truth she could have her children taken away from her and she could lose her job. After the interview with Dryden, as she was being escorted from the interview room, Ms. Burns encountered Defendant in the hall and was permitted to speak to him briefly. She states that she informed him of what Detective Dryden had said, and gave him a hug. Defendant was then interviewed again, with Detective Dryden asking the questions and Investigator Cook and AUSA Neese observing. When she concluded her interview, Detective Dryden turned Defendant over to Investigator Cook, and the parties dispute whether Cook and Neese interviewed Defendant again.


Defendant alleges that, on the morning of March 27, 2013, Ms. Burns was pulled over a few blocks from home and was "threatened with prosecution for obstruction of justice, among other possible crimes, if she refused" to tell her husband to come to where she was. The motion alleges that, when Ms. Burns was being interviewed at the Bedford County Sheriff's Office,

[s]he was threatened with prosecution herself by Investigator Cook and Assistant United States Attorney Ashley Neese. The threat was made to her that if she did not tell them that she knew that Defendant had been selling drugs, she would be arrested and held in jail, her children would be taken from her, she would lose custody of them, and she would lose her job and her teaching license.

The motion states that Ms. Burns spoke with Defendant in the hall and relayed this information, and when questioning of Defendant resumed, "[t]he threats that had been made to [Ms. Burns] were repeated to Defendant; he was told by Investigator Cook and by Assistant United States Attorney Ashley Neese that if he didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, his wife would be arrested and locked up also." In Defendant's view, his confession was involuntary because it was obtained by a threat to arrest his wife.

A confession is involuntary if it is not the "product of a rational intellect and a free will." Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 398 (1978); see also Lynumn v. Illinois, 372 U.S. 528, 534 (1963) (observing that the test is whether a defendant's "will was overborne at the time he confessed"). "In determining whether a defendant's will was overborne in a particular case, " a court must assess "the totality of all the surrounding circumstances - both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation." Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 226 (1978). The Supreme Court of the United States has held "that coercive police activity is a necessary predicate to the finding that a confession is not voluntary' within the meaning of the Due Process Clause...." Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 167 (1986) (emphasis added). When a confession is challenged, "[t]he prosecution must prove at least by a preponderance of the evidence that the confession was voluntary." Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489 (1972) (adding that, "[o]f course, the States are free, pursuant to their own law, to adopt a higher standard"). One circumstance that may weigh toward finding a confession involuntary is if threats of legal action are made regarding a defendant's family members. See, e.g., Lynumn, 372 U.S. at 534; see also Harris v. South Carolina, 338 U.S. 68, 70-71 (1949).[1]

At the suppression hearing on May 20, 2014, the government presented the testimony of Investigator Chris Cook, Ms. Burns, and Detective Dryden. ...

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