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United States v. Stinson

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

May 9, 2018




         This memorandum opinion is issued in support of the Court's previous orders on Defendant's Motion to Suppress Statements Obtained in Violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and Defendant's Motion for a Franks Hearing and to Suppress Evidence Seized from His Home. See Dkt. 60; Dkt. 62.

         I. Background

         In May 2010, the Homeland Security Investigations ("HSI") office in Dallas, Texas, initiated an investigation into sexual abuse of children in the Philippines. The investigation identified several people in the Dallas area who sent money to individuals in the Philippines as payment for viewing online live sexual abuse of children. The Dallas office identified 40 individuals in the Philippines who received such payments, and obtained payment records related to those individuals. From these records, HSI was able to identify several thousand individuals who had paid money to the Philippine accounts. Among these was Defendant. The Dallas office sent a detailed report regarding Defendant to the Washington, D.C. office of HSI. The report explained that from 2008 to 2010, Defendant made approximately $1, 796.50 in payments via Xoom[1] to individuals associated with online sexual abuse of children in the Philippines.

         On March 13, 2012, at approximately 8:00 P.M., HSI Special Agent ("SA") K. Eyler, HSI SA C. Moldowan, and Prince William County Detective T. Abdallah visited Defendant's home in Manassas, Virginia. Defendant's wife answered the door, and SA Eyler asked to speak to Defendant. Dkt. 48. Ex. 1 at 2:6-17. When Defendant came to the door, SA Eyler said. "We're doing an investigation and your name came up and I was wondering if we can talk to you about it, maybe you can help us figure this out." Id. at 3:4-8. Defendant said, "Okay. Can I ask what it's about? I mean I'm just curious." Id. at 3:9-10. SA Eyler responded, "Yeah. It's a child exploitation case." Id. at 3:11-12. Defendant said, "Okay. Child exploitation case?" SA Eyler replied, "Yes. It's a little sensitive. I don't know if you wanted your family to hear about it or not." Id. at 3:13-16. Defendant then asked if they could go outside. Id. at 3:17. The agents accommodated his desire to continue the conversation outside of the hearing of his family, and spoke with Defendant on the front porch of his home. Id. at 3:18-22.

         SA Eyler explained that Defendant's credit card information had been connected with Xoom. Id. at 4:1-10. Defendant acknowledged that the payments were to "get girls in the Philippines that, you know, dance, you know, for you, you know, play like that stuff. You know." Id. at 4:11-14. He initially denied that the videos involved sexual exploitation of children, and stated that the individuals were "[r]oughly, you know, from about maybe 20 to, you know, 40s ... They say they're at least 18 or older." Id. at 4:16-18; 5:19-6:3. SA Eyler informed Defendant that the women to whom Defendant had made payments were involved in sexual exploitation of children. Id. at 6:4-14. Defendant declined SA Eyler's request to look through his computer. Id. at 7:13-19.

         It appeared that Defendant had chosen to conclude the interview, and SA Eyler turned off the audio recording. Id. at 9:2. Defendant then reengaged the agents, and the continued conversation was recorded. See Dkt. 48, Ex. 2; see also Dkt. 56 at 21:1-13. In this portion of the conversation, Defendant stated "I do think some of those girls on there were underage." Dkt. 48, Ex. 2 at 2:2-4. Defendant discussed certain payments he had made on Xoom, and stated that the varying prices were based on "how many girls are there." Id. at 3:9-20. Defendant further stated that he viewed "moms and daughters, " and that the individuals were "I mean from various ages. You know, from teenage to on up." Id. at 4:15-18.

         After the interview, Det. Abdallah sought and obtained a search warrant for Defendant's home from a Prince William County magistrate judge. See Dkt. 44, Ex. 1. Because Defendant was now aware of the nature of the investigation, and thus had the opportunity and incentive to destroy evidence, the search warrant was executed that same night, at approximately 10:30 P.M. See Dkt. 48 at 4. During the execution of the search warrant, Defendant made certain statements to law enforcement. Those statements were also recorded.

         On July 24, 2017, Defendant was arrested. See Dkt. 8. Defendant was charged with five counts of sexual exploitation of children in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251 (a). See Dkt. 31. By motions filed on January 5, 2018, Defendant sought suppression of the statements he made to law enforcement during the execution of the search warrant, requested a Franks hearing as to the affidavit offered in support of the search warrant, and moved to suppress all evidence seized from his home during the search of March 13, 2012.[2] See Dkt. 43; Dkt. 44.

         II. Motion to Suppress Statements

         The Fifth Amendment provides that "No person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const, amend. V. To safeguard this constitutional guarantee, the Supreme Court has required law enforcement to inform individuals who are in custody of their Fifth Amendment rights prior to interrogation. United Slates v. Hashime, 734 F.3d 278, 282 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966)).

         A person is "in custody" for purposes of Miranda if the person has been arrested or if his freedom of action has been curtailed to a degree associated with arrest. Burket v. Angelone, 208 F.3d 172, 196 (4th Cir. 2000). The Court must consider whether a reasonable person in the individual's position would have understood his situation as the functional equivalent of a formal arrest. Id. To determine whether an individual was in custody, a court must objectively view the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation. See United States v. Freeman, 61 F.Supp.3d 534, 536 (E.D. Va. 2014). Facts relevant to this inquiry include, but are not limited to, the time, place, and purpose of the encounter, the words used by the officers, the officers' tone of voice and general demeanor, the presence of multiple officers, the potential display of a weapon by the officers, and whether there was physical contact between the officers and the defendant. Id. at 536-37 (citing Hashime, 734 F.3d at 283).

         Defendant asserts that he was in custody and was being interrogated by law enforcement officers when he made certain statements to them during the execution of the search warrant in his home. Specifically, Defendant claims he was in custody because (1) a contingent of at least 13 officers entered Defendant's home to execute the search warrant; (2) many of the officers were in uniform, and armed; (3) the officers controlled Defendant's family members' movements, including by detaining them all in the living room; and, according to Defendant, (4) the officers occasionally pointed guns at Defendant and his family. See Dkt. 43 at 3-4. Defendant suggests that he was restricted to the basement bedroom during the course of the interview, and places great importance on the fact that the officers never advised him of his Miranda rights or explicitly told him that he was free to leave. Id. at 4-5.

         The interview at issue, as explained above, was conducted during the execution of the search warrant on March 13, at approximately 10:30 P.M. The encounter began when the agents entered the residence with guns unholstered, in accordance with protocol. See Dkt. 56 at 27:16-31:11. The guns were holstered once the scene was secured. Id. (explaining that residents of the home stay outside during the security sweep, which takes approximately five minutes). While other officers executed the search warrant, SA Eyler and Det. Abdallah asked Defendant if he would be willing to speak to them again. Id. at 34:6-12. He agreed. Id. The interview took place in a basement bedroom, away from the noise of the ongoing house search, and away from Defendant's family in accordance with the preference he had expressed during the earlier interview. See Id. at 34:13-18. The door was shut, but it was not locked or obstructed. Id. at 35:24-37:3. SA Eyler confirmed that Defendant had read the warrant, and asked whether he had any questions. See Dkt. 48, Ex. 3 at 3:6-16. She then said, "Okay. You understand you are not under arrest. This is just a search warrant for items, specific items in your home ... Okay. You understand that?" Id. Defendant replied, "Yes." Id. Shortly afterwards, SA Eyler reiterated, "Like I said, you're not under arrest." Id. at 4:3. The interview lasted for approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. Dkt. 48 at 6. The interview concluded at approximately 12:10 A.M. on March 14. Id. at 7. Defendant was not arrested at that time.

         Upon a review of the evidence, the pleadings, and the parties' arguments at the March 1 and March 8, 2018 hearing, [3] the Court found that the interview was not custodial, and that Miranda warnings were not necessary. The Court therefore denied Defendant's motion to suppress. Several reasons supported the Court's decision, and they are addressed in turn below.

         First, there is absolutely no evidence other than the testimony of Defendant, his wife, and his son to support the claim that the officers executing the search warrant pointed their weapons at Defendant and his family or that any residents of the household were handcuffed. Instead, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Government Exhibit 8, a photo taken by law enforcement during the execution of the search warrant, shows Defendant's family sitting placidly on the living room couch, without handcuffs. This photo is the best evidence of what occurred that day, and it corroborates the law enforcement officers' version of events, not the frankly incredible version related by Defendant, his wife, and his son. For example, Mrs. Stinson's claim that law enforcement officers put herself, her 19 year old daughter, and her 13 year old son in handcuffs (see Dkt. 56 at ...

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