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United States v. Stahmer

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

November 6, 2017



          Raymond A. Jackson District Judge.

         Before the Court is Defendant Justin Stahmer's Motion to Suppress. Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of his Motion, ECF No. 12, and the Government filed a response, ECF No. 13. Defendant did not file a reply. Defendant seeks to suppress Defendant's statements allegedly made to Coast Guard personnel and law enforcement on or about June 20, 2016. On October 27, 2017, the Court held a hearing on this matter and denied Defendant's Motion from the bench. ECF No. 19. This Order further explains the Court's rationale. For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's Motion to Suppress is DENIED.


         On the evening of June 20, 2016, at about 9:10 p.m., the Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads received a call on the VHF radio frequency 16 (channel 16) from the vessel Sully Girl. Shortly after the first call, Sully Girl reported a mumbled message on channel 16 stating that he had "no cell phone, man over board, no GPS and fish finder." The Coast Guard interpreted the call to mean that there may be a person in the water in distress and both the Hampton Roads and North Carolina Coast Guard Sections began repeated attempts to hail the vessel Sully Girl to learn its position and determine the nature of the emergency.

         At 9:59 p.m., the Sully Girl said "mayday mayday" on channel 16. When the Coast Guard approached, the Sully Girl had all of her lights out. At that time, Defendant did not indicate any distress to the Coast Guard by shining his on board flashlight, hailing, or waiving down the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard then asked standard questions to determine if they had found the vessel reporting distress. At first, Defendant denied making a distress call but did not object to a boarding team embarking upon the vessel. After initial contact with Defendant, two members of the boarding team conducted an initial sweep of the vessel to ensure it was seaworthy and there were no obvious hazards. It is standard operating procedure to conduct a sweep of the vessel to ensure the safety of those on board the vessel, other mariners in the area, and the boarding officers themselves. After the vessel was deemed safe, the boarding team proceeded with their initial standard boarding questions to understand the basic nature of the situation. During these foundational questions, Defendant denied making any distress calls; however, Defendant eventually stated that he was out of gas and had called "mayday."

         At about 10:23 p.m., Defendant randomly fell overboard. The boarding team suspected that Defendant was intoxicated after Defendant fell overboard, combined with the presence of empty beer cans on the vessel, slurred speech, smell of alcohol, and failure to follow instructions. The boarding officers tried to conduct a field sobriety test, but Defendant refused to cooperate. Defendant became belligerent, uncooperative, and ultimately confrontational. Because of this behavior, Defendant was placed in handcuffs for boarding officer safety. The Virginia Marine Resource Commission Police ("VMRC") came to take Defendant into custody on suspicion of boating under the influence while the Coast Guard towed his boat to the pier. While in VMRC's custody, Defendant made a variety of spontaneous statements to Officer Mitchell, the Coast Guard boarding officer. Defendant was never read his Miranda rights while transiting ashore because "it was noisy on the forward part of the boat." Instead, Defendant repeatedly made unsolicited threats to Petty Officer Mitchell. He made statements such as, he would "take him out" if Defendant ever saw Mitchell again; and stated that Defendant knew people in the "Buckroe Boys" who would "take care" of Mitchell. Mitchell, an African American, knew the Buckroe Boys were a local, criminal gang with a reputation of involvement in racial hate crimes in Hampton, Virginia. When approaching the marina, Defendant was advised of his Miranda rights by Marine Police Officer Bryant Stephens. Defendant was then transported to the Norfolk City Jail.

         On August 10, 2017, Defendant was indicted on three counts (two counts of Communicating a False Distress Signal and one count of Threatening a Federal Law Enforcement Officer). On September 1, 2017, Defendant pled Not Guilty before Judge Krask and was released on an unsecured bond. Defendant's Motion to Suppress was filed on September 22, 2017. The Government's Response was filed on October 5, 2017. Defendant did not file a reply. The Court held a hearing on the Motion to Suppress on October 27, 2017. The Jury Trial is set for November 7, 2017.


         In deciding a motion to suppress, the district court is empowered to make findings of fact, and conclusions of law. United States v. Stevenson, 396 F.3d 538, 541 (4th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). "At a hearing on a motion to suppress, the credibility of the witness and the weight to be given the evidence, together with the inferences, deductions and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, are all matters to be determined by the trial judge." United States v. McKneely, 6 F.3d 1447, 1452-53 (10th Cir. 1993); see United States v. Massey, 257 Fed.Appx. 662, 664 (4th Cir. 2007); Columbus-Am. Discovery Group v. All. Mut. Ins. Co., 56 F.3d 556, 567 (4th Cir. 1995). As a general rule, the burden of proof is on the defendant who seeks to suppress the evidence. United States v. Dickerson, 655 F.2d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 1981). Once the defendant establishes a basis for his suppression motion, the burden shifts to the government. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177-78 n.14 (1974).


         A. Whether Defendant Reasonably Believed He was in Custody at the Time of His Statements to Coast Guard Boarding Officers.

         At the time of Defendant's statements to the Coast Guard Boarding Officers, Defendant could not have reasonably believed he was in custody.

         Miranda warnings are required before law enforcement may properly engage in any custodial interrogation. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). Specifically, "[p]rior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed." Id. "The prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination." Id. If law enforcement does not administer Miranda warnings before they question a person in custody, evidence resulting from the questioning must be suppressed. However, "[t]he defendant may waive effectuation of these rights, provided the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently." Id.

         Whether a suspect has voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived his rights under Miranda is examined by the "totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation." Moran v. Burbine,475 U.S. 412, 421 (1986); see also United States v. Robinson, 404 F.3d 850, 860 (4th Cir. 2005). The Fourth Circuit has articulated a two-step inquiry. First, a court must find that "the relinquishment of the right 'must have been voluntary in the sense that it was the product of free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception, '" United States v. Shanklin, No. 2:12CR162, 2013 WL 6019216, at *3 (E.D. Va. Nov. 13, 2013) (quoting United States v. Cristobal, 293 F.3d 134, 139 (4th Cir. 2002)). Second, the district court must find that the waiver was "made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.'" Id. (quoting Cristobal, 293 F.3d at 140). When analyzing the totality of the circumstances, courts have considered such factors as the suspect's ...

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