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United States v. Peterson

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 20, 2018



          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge


         The defendant, Tymon Peterson (“Peterson”), filed a Motion to Suppress (Doc. No. 45). Peterson, who is charged with several drug and firearms offenses, argues that the government violated his Fourth Amendment rights by (1) unlawfully entering his home and (2) unlawfully searching and seizing his cell phone. See Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Suppress (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 45-1) at 1. Peterson seeks to suppress (1) the statements that he made to law enforcement after they entered his home; (2) the evidence that law enforcement obtained from his cell phone; and (3) any additional evidence that law enforcement obtained on the basis of the fruits of their search of his cell phone, including evidence obtained through a search warrant that was later served on Snapchat. Id.

         On October 23, 2018, the court conducted an evidentiary hearing and held argument on Peterson's Motion to Suppress.

         For the reasons stated below, Peterson's Motion to Suppress is denied.


         The court will first provide an overview of the relevant facts. It will then summarize the case's procedural history.

         A. Findings of Fact[1]

         On September 24, 2017, the general manager of Hoffman's Gun Center (“Hoffman's”) called Special Agent Sean Brackett (“SA Brackett”), a law enforcement officer with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”). The general manager reported that he had video surveillance of a possible incident of firearms trafficking that occurred at Hoffman's on September 22, 2017. SA Brackett responded by reviewing the video surveillance and interviewing the general manager and several sales clerks at Hoffman's.

         According to one of the sales clerks, Peterson entered Hoffman's on September 22, with a person who is known in the Indictment as JW. JW, who SA Brackett later determined had prior felony convictions, asked the sales clerk about a Kahr Arms pistol and stated, in effect, that “we want one.” The clerk, however, did not permit JW to handle the firearm because JW informed the clerk that he did not have a pistol permit. When SA Brackett reviewed the video surveillance from that day, he saw JW pointing to firearms in a display case and passing Peterson what appeared to be U.S. currency. Peterson, who did possess a valid pistol permit, ultimately purchased the Kahr Arms pistol, along with two other pistols. As part of this purchase, Peterson completed an ATF Form 4473, in which he certified that he was not buying firearms on behalf of another person.

         Peterson and JW returned to Hoffman's on September 23, 2017. According to the clerk working that day, JW asked about purchasing cheap pistols and indicated that Peterson wanted to purchase a Taurus pistol. However, after the clerk discovered that JW did not have a pistol permit, the clerk declined to sell the Taurus pistol to Peterson.

         Through his investigation, SA Brackett learned that Peterson had filed a report with the Connecticut State Police, stating that, on September 17, 2017, several men had physically assaulted him and stolen several of his firearms. On September 25, SA Brackett spoke with Trooper Williams of the Connecticut State Police by phone about Peterson's report.

         On September 27, SA Brackett, Special Agent Christopher Edwards of ATF (“SA Edwards”), and Bridgeport Detective Dennis Martinez (“Detective Martinez”) (collectively, the “officers”) went to Peterson's home to interview him about his gun purchases from Hoffman's. At that time, the officers did not have a search or arrest warrant for Peterson. The officers identified themselves at the door as law enforcement, and they asked Peterson if they could enter. As discussed in greater detail below, see, infra, at 10-12, the parties dispute the precise moment when Peterson invited the officers into his home. However, there is no dispute that the officers did eventually enter the home, and that the vast majority of the interview was conducted inside the premises of Peterson's home. Peterson's mother, Vickie Peterson, was also present for much of the interview.

         SA Brackett audio recorded the entire interview, apparently without Peterson's knowledge. See generally Government's Exhibit 1, Audio Recording of 9/27/2017 Interview (“Audio”); Government's Exhibit 1T, Transcript of Audio Recording of 9/27/2017 Interview (“Audio Tr.”). The officers began the conversation by asking Peterson about the September 17 assault and robbery that he reported to the Connecticut State Police. Peterson recounted that he had received a ride from New Haven to the Bridgeport area from the friends of a former girlfriend. Peterson stated that, during the ride, the individuals in the car attacked him with a hammer, stole four firearms that he had on his person and in his backpack, and then left him on the side of the highway. Peterson provided SA Brackett with the names of his attackers, as well as printed out photographs of the assailants for the officers.

         The officers then asked Peterson whether he had replaced the stolen guns. Peterson told the officers that he had purchased replacements at Hoffman's and at the Newington Gun Exchange. Peterson stated that JW accompanied him to Hoffman's, and that Peterson borrowed money from JW to purchase the pistols from Hoffman's. After further questioning, SA Edwards informed Peterson that they had video footage of JW handing Peterson money and pointing out firearms in the display case that Peterson eventually purchased. The officers stated that JW was a felon, and that purchasing guns for convicted felons and lying on an ATF 4473 Form were federal crimes. They also informed Peterson that a federal prosecutor had been assigned to his case. Peterson repeatedly stated that he did not purchase the three firearms for JW, and that JW merely lent him money to purchase his replacement guns from Hoffman's.

         The officers asked where Peterson had stored the recently purchased firearms. Peterson did not provide a location. However, Peterson represented that he could bring the guns to the officers the following morning. Peterson also stated that the firearms had trigger locks on them, and that Peterson possessed the keys to those locks. The officers asked whether Peterson could show them the keys. Although Peterson walked around his home with SA Brackett in search for the trigger lock keys, he was unable to find them.

         Later, SA Brackett asked Peterson if he had any text messages on his cell phone that would corroborate his version of the story. When Peterson showed SA Brackett a text message thread between himself and JW, SA Brackett asked if he could see the phone, took possession of Peterson's phone, and then began videotaping the screen of the phone as he scrolled through text message thread. See generally Government's Exhibit 3, Video Text Thread (“Video”). SA Brackett remarked out loud that he saw conversations about gun purchases and “drug talk” in the text message thread between Peterson and JW.

         The officers then asked Peterson to sign a consent form allowing them to seize and search his cell phone. Peterson initially resisted, stating that he did not want them to take his phone. The officers represented that they could legally seize the phone now and secure a search warrant later because they had already seen incriminating evidence on the phone. They further stated that, if Peterson wanted the benefits of being a cooperator, he needed to provide them with the passcode for unlocking his phone. Peterson's phone was an iPhone 6S. Eventually, Peterson provided the passcode and signed a written consent form. The consent form contained the following boilerplate language:

I understand that I have a right to refuse to give my consent to a search and may demand that a search warrant be obtained prior to any search of the person or property described below.
I understand that any contraband or evidence of a crime found during the search can be seized and used against me in any court of law or other proceeding.
I understand that I may consult with an attorney before or during the search.
I understand that I may withdraw my consent to this search at any time prior to the search's termination.
This consent to search has been given voluntarily without promises, threats, coercion or force of any kind whatsoever.
I have read the above statement of rights, understand these rights, and hereby authorize agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to conduct a complete search of the property described below.

See Government's Exhibit 3, Consent to Search Form. Shortly after Peterson signed the consent form, the officers left the home with Peterson's cell phone.

         On September 28, the day after the interview, SA Brackett brought Peterson's phone to Special Agent Oppenheim (“SA Oppenheim”), who then conducted a digital data extraction of the phone. That same day, SA Brackett returned the phone to Peterson. See Defendant's Exhibit 2, Report of Investigation for 9/27/17 Interview.

         B. Procedural History

         On October 24, 2017, the government filed a Complaint against Peterson, alleging that he violated section 922(a)(6) of title 18 of the United States Code by knowingly making a false statement to deceive a firearms dealer as to the lawfulness of the sale of a firearm. Complaint (Doc. No. 1). The government obtained an arrest warrant on the same day. Peterson was arrested on January 1, 2018, and he was released on bond on January 5, 2018.

         On March 14, 2018, the Grand Jury returned a six count Indictment against Peterson. See generally Indictment (Doc. No. 24). Count One charges Peterson with conspiracy to make a false statement in connection with the sale of a firearm and to sell or dispose of a firearm to a known felon. Count Two charges him with making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm. The remaining four counts charge Peterson with using a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking felony.

         On April 3, 2018, SA Brackett applied for and obtained a warrant to search Peterson's social media account with Snapchat (the “Snapchat Warrant”). See generally Defendant Exhibit D (“Snapchat Warrant”) (Doc. No. 47). The Snapchat Warrant authorizes the seizure of communications and files from Peterson's Snapchat account that relate to firearms or controlled substances. Id.

         On October 23, 2018, this court conducted an evidentiary hearing and held argument on Peterson's Motion to Suppress. At the hearing the government presented testimony from SA Brackett. Peterson did not present any witnesses. The government and the defendant each introduced a number of exhibits, including, inter alia, the audio recording of the officers' September 27 interview with Peterson, and the video recording of the text message exchange between Peterson and JW that SA Brackett took during the interview. See generally Marked Exhibit List (Doc. No. 71).


         Peterson argues that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights because (1) Peterson did not voluntarily consent to the officers' warrantless entry into his home, Def.'s Mem. at 11; (2) Peterson did not voluntarily consent to the officers' warrantless search of his cell phone, id. at 14; and (3) even if Peterson did voluntarily consent to having his phone searched, the officers' search for evidence relating to narcotics violated the scope of his consent, which was limited to a search for evidence relating to firearms, id. at 26. Peterson argues that the court should therefore suppress all statements that Peterson made to the officers during the September 27 interview and all evidence that the government obtained from Peterson's cell phone. See id. at 1. In addition, Peterson seeks to suppress all evidence obtained pursuant to the Snapchat Warrant, arguing that such evidence is derivative of the officers' illegal search and seizure of Peterson's cell phone. See id. at 27.

         A. Legal Framework

         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. Const. amend. IV. Warrantless searches and seizures in a suspect's home are generally unreasonable and therefore violate the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Garcia, 56 F.3d 418, 422 (2d Cir. 1995). However, “[b]ecause the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, its warrant requirement is subject to certain reasonable exceptions.” United States v. Iverson, 897 F.3d 450, 458 (2d Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         One well established exception is that “a warrantless entry and search are permissible if the authorities have obtained the voluntary consent of a person authorized to grant such consent.” Id. The government has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the consent was voluntary. United States v. Cacace, 796 F.3d 176, 189 (2d Cir. 2015). Consent is given voluntarily when it is “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, 76 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         The question of whether consent “was in fact ‘voluntary' or was the product of duress or coercion, express or implied, is a question of fact to be determined from the totality of all the circumstances.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 227 (1973). The standard for evaluating consent is an objective one that asks whether a reasonable person would have believed a suspect's consent to be voluntary. See Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 251 (1991) (“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?”); Southerland v. Garcia, 483 Fed.Appx. 606, 607-08 (2d Cir. 2012) (“[W]e assess [ ] consent on an objective basis.”). Courts in the Second Circuit look to a number of factors in determining the voluntariness of consent, including: (1) the age of the consenter; (2) his educational background; (3) his intelligence; (4) the length of detention; (5) the use of physical punishments or deprivations; (6) whether he was advised of his constitutional rights; (7) whether the consenter was in custody; (8) whether guns were drawn; (9) whether the consenter was frisked; (10) whether the consenter was threatened; (11) whether he was in a public area; and (12) whether he was informed that ...

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