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United States v. Gates

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

December 6, 2019



          Michael F. Urbanski Chief United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the court on defendant Keith Obie Gates's ("Gates") motion to suppress evidence of a firearm found on his person during a search incident to arrest and to suppress statements made during this arrest. ECF No. 34. The government responded to this motion on November 12, 2019 and included with its response a video showing the entry into Gates's home, the arrest of Gates, and the search incident to the arrest from the arresting officer's body camera. For the reasons explained below, the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Gates's motion.


         Late in the evening on May 21, 2019, Roanoke City 911 operators received reports from two callers describing a disturbance at 810 Mountain Avenue. ECF No. 35-1. The first caller reported a loud disturbance between a male and a female; the second caller said that "the male is beating the female up," and that she could hear the sound of the male punching the female. Id. Officer Preston Hill, who was assigned to patrol this part of Roanoke, was sent to address the disturbance. ECF No. 35-3, at 5:50. Officer Hill had checked active warrants earlier in his shift and was aware of a non-permitted (i.e. requiring arrest) bench warrant outstanding for Gates. See ECF No. 35-2.

         When Officer Hill arrived at 810 Mountain Avenue, he spoke briefly with the second caller who was waiting for him on the front porch of the residence. ECF No. 35-3, at 8:55. She told Officer Hill she could hear from outside that "[h]e's [Gates] has been beating her." Id. When asked who was inside the residence, she told Officer Hill specifically that it was "Keith Gates." Id. Officer Hill was able to hear raised voices from outside the residence and testified that he recognized from prior visits the voice of Gates. Id.

         At this point, Officer Hill entered the residence and found Gates in a dispute with a woman. ECF No. 35-3, at 9:55. After asking what was happening, Officer Hill placed Gates in handcuffs and began a search of his person, during which he discovered a pistol in his pocket. Id. at 11:40. He then asked Gates if he was "allowed to have a gun on [him]." Id. at 13:09. Gates responded that the gun had been in the shorts he was wearing when he put them on to go outside, and that the gun did not belong to him. Id. Officer Hill asked Gates if he had ever been charged with a felony. Id. at 13:55. Gates told Officer Hill he had been convicted of a felony. Id. at 14:07. Officer Hill and Gates discussed whether Gates was permitted to be in the same house with a firearm for several minutes. Id. at 13:55-15:00. As Officer Hill was taking Gates to his car, he mentioned needng to check back at the station whether Gates had any prior felony convictions, to which Gates responded, "I just told you I've got a felony conviction." Id. at 18:08-18:26. This led to further discussion of Gates's past felony conviction, including whether Gates was charged as an adult or a juvenile and what implications this would have regarding Gates's possession of the pistol. Id. After this discussion, Officer Hill took Gates to the police station.


         Gates argues that evidence of the firearm found on his person ought to be suppressed because the entrance into his home, and the search that revealed the firearm, was unconstitutional. He also argues that his statements to Officer Hill about the firearm and his past conviction must be suppressed. Gates contends that Officer Hill's entrance into his home was warrantless, and thus presumptively unconstitutional. He argues that neither of the possibly applicable exceptions to the warrant requirement, exigent circumstances or execution of an arrest warrant, can redeem Officer Hill's entrance into his home. Finally, he argues that, even if Officer Hill's warrantless entry was justified, the questioning that occurred before Gates was read his Miranda rights violated the Fifth Amendment, and thus his answers must be suppressed.

         The court finds that exigent circumstances did permit a warrantless entry into 810 Mountain Avenue, for the reasons below. The court agrees with Gates, however, that Officer Hill's questioning violated Gates' Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The answers to these questions thus must be suppressed.


         The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Cont. amend. IV. This means that, "[a]bsent exigent circumstances, [the] threshold [of an individual's house] may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant." Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (1980). "The most basic principle of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence . . . is that warrantless searches and seizures inside a home are presumptively unconstitutional." United States v. Yengel, 711 F.3d 392, 396 (4th Cir. 2013). "Nevertheless, because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness,' the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions." Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). "One such exception is when exigent circumstances justify the warrantless entry of a home." Yengel, 711 F.3d at 396.

         Such exigent circumstances, according to Supreme Court precedent, include entering a home to fight a fire, prevent the destruction of evidence, or continue in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing subject. Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403. This list is not exhaustive, however, and generally speaking, situations that are "enveloped by a sufficient level of urgency," may constitute an exigency and justify a warrantless entry. Yengel, 711 F.3d at 397. The Supreme Court described the justification for a warrantless entry as "[t]he need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury," Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403, the test for which is whether the circumstances known to [an officer] at the time of entry justified an objectively reasonable belief that an emergency requiring immediate entry to render assistance or prevent harm existed." Hunsberger v. Wood, 570 F.3d 546, 555 (4th Cir. 2009).

         The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that "no person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const, amend. V. This privilege against compulsory self-incrimination is safeguarded by procedural rules dictating the terms of custodial interrogations. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). These rules require law enforcement officers to warn a suspect of his rights and to obtain a waiver of those rights before conducting custodial interrogation, with limited exceptions. United States v. Mashburn, 406 F.3d 303, 306 (4th Cir. 2005).

         A suspect is "in custody" for Miranda purposes if "there [was] a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest." Stansbury v. California,511 U.S. 318, 322 (1994). The term "interrogation" includes not only "express questioning," but also "any words or actions on the part of the police . . . that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect." Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 301 (1980). In deciding whether statements constitute "interrogation," courts focus on the perceptions of the suspect, rather than the intent of the police. Id. The government bears the burden of ...

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