Involuntary Statements in Child Pornography Cases
United States v. Sandell, 21-1511
A statement is involuntary when it is extracted by threats, violence, or express or implied promises sufficient to overbear the defendant’s will and critically impair his capacity for self-determination. Factors used to make this determination include “the degree of police coercion, the length of the interrogation, its location, its continuity, and the defendant’s maturity, education, physical condition, and mental condition.” (quoting United States v. Boslau, 632 F.3d 422, 428 (8th Cir. 2011)).
Mark Sandell pled guilty to receiving child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2) and (b)(1). Before his plea, Sandell moved to suppress statements made to law enforcement during an in-home interrogation.
Law enforcement obtained a search warrant for a home in during an investigation of a peer-to-peer computer file sharing network being used to acquire child pornography.
The officers identified themselves as law enforcement and instructed Sandell to step outside while they conducted a sweep of the home.
Sandell admitted to downloading child pornography recently and that his child pornography collection on his laptop contained a little of “everything.” Sandell also voluntarily retrieved and turned over a camera and two thumb drives to the officers. But Sandell refused to discuss the details of his past child pornography conviction. Sandell did, however, comment that given his criminal history, he was likely facing fifteen years of imprisonment.
Although the officers left after the search without arresting Sandell, he was later charged with distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography. Sandell unsuccessfully moved to suppress statements made during the interrogation at his home. Sandell then pled guilty to receipt of child pornography but, in his plea agreement, preserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.
Sandell appeals the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress statements made to the officers while in his home. We review the district court’s legal conclusions de novo and its factual findings for clear error. United States v. Parker, 993 F.3d 595, 601 (8th Cir. 2021).
Sandell first argues the officers violated his Miranda rights while questioning him in his home. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). “The Fifth Amendment requires that Miranda warnings be given when a person is interrogated by law enforcement after being taken into custody.” Parker, 993 F.3d at 601 (quoting United States v. Giboney, 863 F.3d 1022, 1027 (8th Cir. 2017)). The government also agrees that the February 27, 2020, visit by law enforcement at Sandell’s residence was an interrogation.
“To determine whether a suspect was in custody, we ask whether, given the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave or cause the agents to leave.” Id. (quoting United States v. Laurita, 821 F.3d 1020, 1024 (8th Cir. 2016)).
But we have consistently held police escorts throughout a house do not restrain a defendant’s movement to the degree associated with a formal arrest. See, e.g., Giboney, 863 F.3d at 1028; Czichray, 378 F.3d at 825, 830. Moreover, Sandell was never handcuffed or physically or verbally restrained from moving about. See Laurita, 821 F.3d at 1025 (finding that absence of handcuffing or physical or verbal restraint weighed against defendant being in custody).
And although Sandell was certainly outnumbered with four officers in his home, we have found custody did not exist in even more police-dominated circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Axsom, 289 F.3d 496, 502 (8th Cir. 2002). Thus, based on the totality of the circumstances, the district court did not err in holding the in-home interrogation was not custodial.
“A statement is involuntary when it is extracted by threats, violence, or express or implied promises sufficient to overbear the defendant’s will and critically impair his capacity for self-determination.” United States v. Roberts, 975 F.3d 709, 718 (8th Cir. 2020). Factors used to make this determination include “the degree of police coercion, the length of the interrogation, its location, its continuity, and the defendant’s maturity, education, physical condition, and mental condition.” Id. (quoting United States v. Boslau, 632 F.3d 422, 428 (8th Cir. 2011)).
The totality of circumstances demonstrates that Sandell’s will was not overborne at the time he made the challenged statements. There is no evidence Sandell lacked the requisite maturity, education, or mental or physical stamina to understand his rights. Throughout the interview, officers continued to remind Sandell he was not under arrest and was not obligated to talk to them. Moreover, Sandell admitted he had experience with the criminal justice system suggesting he was familiar with his constitutional rights. See United States v. Vinton, 631 F.3d 476, 482 (8th Cir. 2011) (“A history of interaction with the criminal justice system supports an inference that an interviewee is familiar with his constitutional rights and that his statements to the police are voluntary.”). Under these facts, the district court did not err in finding Sandell voluntarily made statements to law enforcement.