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United States v. Eastman

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 15, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOHN EASTMAN

          RULING ON MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         The Government accuses John Eastman of posing online as a teenage pop star to induce young girls to expose themselves to him in violation 18 U.S.C § 2422(b). He is also accused of possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). In 2012, a young girl told her mother that a person online posing as the pop star Harry Styles told her and other girls at a sleep-over to pose sexually for him. The mother reported the incident to the police. Later, the police traced the report to an internet protocol address assigned to John Eastman. The police went to Mr. Eastman’s home. Mr. Eastman spoke with the police and gave his desktop computer to them. The police did not obtain a warrant before entering Mr. Eastman’s home and seizing his computer. Mr. Eastman allegedly gave a detailed confession the same day.

         Mr. Eastman now moves to suppress the physical evidence and incriminating statements. The defendant seeks to suppress “all physical evidence seized from [his apartment] as well as certain statements he allegedly made that day to law enforcement officers.” (ECF No. 30 at 1.) He argues that the search and seizure is constitutionally infirm because it was conducted without a warrant and without consent. He also argues that his confession must be suppressed because he did not receive Miranda warnings. More specifically, he argues that the police forged his signatures on documents purporting to show his consent to the seizure of his computer, his acknowledgment of having received and understood Miranda warnings, and his confession.

         I held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress on May 31, 2016. The Government presented three witnesses, including Peter Morgan, David Terni, and William Fox. The defense presented a single witness: the defendant’s mother, Linda Eastman. The Court also considered the exhibits and affidavits submitted by the parties as well as the parties’ pre-hearing submissions and post-hearing briefing. For the reasons discussed below, I deny the motion to suppress because I find that Mr. Eastman consented to the search and seizure and received adequate Miranda warnings when they were required.

         II. Legal Standard

         Before trial, a criminal defendant may move to suppress evidence that was obtained illegally. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b). “On a motion to suppress, the defendant bears the initial burden of establishing that a government official acting without a warrant subjected him to a search or seizure. Once the defendant has met this burden, the burden then shifts to the government to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence, that the search or seizure did not violate the Fourth Amendment.” U.S. v. Herron, 18 F.Supp.3d 214, 221 (E.D.N.Y. 2014) (citations omitted). See also United States v. Arboleda, 633 F.2d 985, 989 (2d Cir. 1980). The government also bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant waived his Miranda rights. United States v. Jaswal, 47 F.3d 539, 542 (2d Cir. 1995).

         A. Fourth Amendment

         The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.” Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 250 (1991) (citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 360 (1967)). The police do not violate the Fourth Amendment if a defendant consents to a search or seizure. See Id. at 250-51 (“Thus, we have long approved consensual searches because it is no doubt reasonable for the police to conduct a search once they have been permitted to do so.” (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973))). The question “is whether ‘the officer had a reasonable basis for believing that there had been consent to the search.’” United States v. Garcia, 56 F.3d 418, 423 (2d Cir.1995) (quoting United States v. Sanchez, 32 F.3d 1330, 1334 (8th Cir.1994)).

         “So long as the police do not coerce consent, a search conducted on the basis of consent is not an unreasonable search.” Id. at 422 (citing Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 228). “The test of voluntariness is whether[, under the totality of the circumstances, ] the consent was the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice by its maker, as opposed to mere acquiescence in a show of authority.” United States v. Moreno, 701 F.3d 64 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal citations and quotations omitted); United States v. Perez, 72 Fed. App’x 857, 859 (2d Cir. 2003); see also Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 227. “The standard for measuring the scope of a suspect’s consent under the Fourth Amendment is that of ‘objective’ reasonableness-what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect?” Jimeno, 500 U.S. at 251. “The scope of the suspect’s consent is a question of fact, and ‘[t]he government has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a consent to search was voluntary.’” United States v. Gandia, 424 F.3d 255, 265 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting United States v. Isiofia, 370 F.3d 226, 230-31 (2d Cir. 2004)).

         “Factors the court should consider in assessing the voluntariness of a consent include the defendant’s age, intelligence and educational background, the length and nature of his or her interaction with the police, and whether the officers engaged in coercive behavior.” United States v. Zaleski, 559 F.Supp.2d 178, 185 (D. Conn. 2008); see Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 226-27. The Court should also consider “whether the alleged consenting person was advised of his constitutional rights . . . .” United States v. Puglisi, 790 F.2d 240, 243 (2d Cir.1986). See also Garcia, 56 F.3d at 422-23.

         B. Fifth Amendment

         “The Fifth Amendment protects against compelled self-incrimination. It is well settled that before a suspect may properly be subjected to custodial interrogation, he must be informed that he has the right to remain silent, that any statement he makes may be used in evidence against him, and that he has the right to have counsel present.” United States v. Mathurin, 148 F.3d 68, 69 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 467-71 (1966)). “‘Failure to administer Miranda warnings creates a presumption of compulsion, ’ and that ‘presumption . . . [is]irrebuttable for purposes of the prosecution’s case in chief.’” Mathurin, 148 F.3d at 69 (quoting Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, 307 (1985)). “Thus, ‘unwarned statements that are otherwise voluntary within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment must nevertheless be excluded from evidence under Miranda.’” Id. (quoting Elstad, 470 U.S. at 307.)

         “The test for determining custody is an objective inquiry that asks (1) ‘whether a reasonable person would have thought he was free to leave the police encounter at issue’ and (2) whether ‘a reasonable person would have understood his freedom of action to have been curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.’” United States v. Faux, ___F.3d___, No. 15-1282-CR, 2016 WL 3648331, at *4 (2d Cir. July 8, 2016) (quoting United States v. Newton, 369 F.3d 659, 672 (2d Cir. 2004)). A seizure is necessary, but not sufficient, for finding that a person is in custody. Id. “An individual’s subjective belief about his or her status generally does not bear on the custody analysis.” Id. An officer’s subjective belief about the status of an individual, “if conveyed . . . to the individual being questioned, ” “‘may bear upon the custody issue . . .’ but ‘only to the extent [it] would affect how a reasonable person in the position of the individual being questioned would gauge the breadth of his or freedom of action.’” See Id. (quoting Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 322 (1994)).

         “Relevant considerations include: (1) ‘the interrogation’s duration’; (2) ‘its location (e.g., at the suspect’s home, in public, in a police station, or at the border)’; (3) ‘whether the suspect volunteered for the interview’; (4) ‘whether the officers used restraints’; (5) ‘whether weapons were present and especially whether they were drawn’; and (6) ‘whether officers told the suspect he was free to leave or under suspicion.’” Id. (quoting United States v. FNU LNU, 653 F.3d 144, 153 (2d Cir. 2011)).

         III. Findings of Fact

         The defendant contends that the officers lacked a warrant to enter his apartment and that he did not consent to the entry of his apartment or the seizure of his computer. He also contends that his mother revoked any consent that may have been given. Finally, he asserts that his signatures on the consent-to-search and acknowledgment-of-rights forms were forged. (ECF No. 31 at 1.) After considering all of the evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing and the evidence the parties included in their written submissions, I make the following findings of fact, rejecting the defendant’s contentions (other than that the police lacked a warrant) and concluding that the Government satisfied its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant voluntarily consented to the searches, was not in custody when he made statements in his house, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights before signing a confession at the police station.[1]

         A. The Alleged Crime

         Prior to 2012, John Eastman moved in with his mother, Linda Eastman. Tr. 209. His mother leased the apartment where they lived and bought a computer that Mr. Eastman kept in his bedroom. Id. at 209, 217. His mother would go into his bedroom once a week “to see what was on there, ” i.e., the computer. Id. at 225-26.

         In 2012, a group of eleven and twelve year-old girls in Vermont were playing with Skype, an online video chat program, during a sleep-over. See Id. at 12-13. Mr. Eastman was allegedly also using Skype that night and began chatting with the girls. Id. at 13. His username, “Harry.Styles888, ” resembled the name of a member of a popular boy band. Id. To trick children into thinking that he was Harry Styles, he would allegedly project video images of Harry Styles via his webcam. Def.’s Ex. 5. The night of the sleep-over, he allegedly asked the eleven and twelve year-old girls to pose sexually in front of their webcam. Tr. 13. One of the girls told her mother, who reported the incident to the Vermont State Police. Id. at 12-13.

         B. The Preliminary Investigation

         The Vermont State Police interviewed the child, who confirmed what her mother had reported. (Decl. of Peter Morgan, ECF No. 46-1 at ¶ 3.) The police then obtained a court order to obtain the Skype account information and the IP address associated with the username “Harry.Styles888, ” which allowed the police to trace the account to Waterbury, Connecticut. Tr. 14, 58. The Vermont State Police contacted the Waterbury Police Department, who assigned the investigation to Detective Peter Morgan. Id. at 12, 57. Detective Morgan specializes in digital forensic examination and focuses on the investigation of child pornography and similar crimes. Id. at 12.

         Detective Morgan obtained a court order to acquire from Comcast Cable (“Comcast”) the account information on the IP address associated with Harry.Styles888. Id. at 15, 58-59. Comcast reported that the IP address was assigned to John Eastman, 157 Congress Avenue, Third Floor, Waterbury, CT. Id. at 15, 59. Armed with that information, Detective Morgan went to that address with Detective David Terni, hoping that Mr. Eastman would cooperate with the investigation and that obtaining a warrant would not be necessary. Id. at 66-69.

         C. The Defendant Consents to the Police Entering His Home, Allows the Police to Take His Computer, and Admits to Sex Chatting as Harry Styles

         The detectives arrived in the dark around 6:00 p.m. on November 10, 2012. Id. at 70-71, 92. The two were in plain clothes but visibly wearing police badges and firearms. Id. at 73-74. The detectives identified themselves when Mr. Eastman answered the door to the apartment on the third floor of 157 Congress Avenue. Id. at 74. Detective Morgan asked Mr. Eastman if the detectives could “come in and talk to him.” Id. at 75. Mr. Eastman said “yes, okay.” Id. at 21, 75.

         Once inside, the detectives asked Mr. Eastman about his computer and the investigation. Id. at 78. The detectives told Mr. Eastman that he was not under arrest and Mr. Eastman was calm and cooperative throughout the discussion. Id. at 22. Detective Morgan told Mr. Eastman about the information that he had received from the Vermont police, which included that the incident under investigation had occurred on Skype with a Harry Styles username. Id. at 22-23.

         At some point, Mr. Eastman’s mother came out of her room, but as soon as Detective Morgan identified himself and told her that he was investigating a case, Mr. Eastman told his mother to return to her room and she walked away. Id. at 23-24. The detectives asked about a laptop computer that was in the living room. Id. at 25. Mr. Eastman explained that he did not use the laptop, but that he did use a desktop computer in his bedroom. Id. at 25-26. Mr. Eastman led the detectives to his bedroom where the desktop computer was located and told the detectives that he had used the Harry Styles username for video sex chatting. Id. at 25-26, 30, 81-82.

         At the hearing and in the briefs, the defendant contested that he was a lessee of the apartment and that he owned the computer. Although the lease of the apartment was in Mr. Eastman’s mother’s name, Mr. Eastman had resided at the apartment for a few years. Id. at 210, 221-22. According to Mr. Eastman’s mother, the defendant had authority to set up services such as Comcast internet for the apartment. Id. at 222-23. At the apartment, he had his own room where he kept a ...


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