Thursday, October 31, 2013

3-Hour Interrogation During SWAT-style Execution of Search Warrant Was "Custodial," Required Miranda Warnings

US v. Hashime: Investigators who had obtained child pornography via Email eventually tracked the address to the Hashime home, where the 19-year old lived with his parents. Investigators obtained a search warrant and went to execute it:
Shortly after 9:00 AM on May 18, 2012, a team of 15-30 state and federal law-enforcement agents equipped with a battering ram descended on Hashime’s home. Hashime, at the time a 19-year-old community-college student, lived with his parents in suburban northern Virginia. The agents banged on the entrance, yelling “Open the door.”

After being let in by Hashime’s aunt, the officers streamed into the house with their guns drawn. An officer entered Hashime’s bedroom and pointed a gun at him. Hashime was in bed, naked and asleep, having gone to bed at 5 AM that morning. The officer ordered Hashime to 'Get up. . . . Get out of bed,' and instructed Hashime to show his hands. After Hashime put on boxer shorts, the officer held Hashime by the arm, issuing orders to him, and marched him out to the front lawn, where officers were corralling the other members of his family. Despite the chilly weather, the Hashime family members were kept outside, several of them dressed only in their nightclothes.
Hashime was taken to the basement and interrogated for three hours in a storage area, with Miranda warnings only given about two hours into the process. His mother was told he was under arrest, was denied the ability to obtain a lawyer for him, and could not speak or contact him during the questioning. The interrogation, during which Hashime made several inculpatory statements, was secretly recorded by the cops. Although they told Hashime he wasn't under arrest one officer explained that he "need[ed] to know the truth . . . even if you're afraid, I don't care if you say I don't want to answer that or I'm afraid to answer it."

Hashime was charged with just about every child porn charge (production, receipt, possession, etc.). The district court denied his motion to suppress the statements made during the interrogation, finding he was not in custody and therefore no Miranda warnings were needed. In making that decision, it relied heavily on Hashime's demeanor as recorded during the interrogation, which displayed "no kind of hesitation, no nervousness." Hashime pleaded guilty to receipt and possession charges and went to a bench trial on the production and distribution charges, of which he was convicted. At sentencing, the district court rejected Hashime's argument to set aside the mandatory minimums involved on Eighth Amendment grounds, but called the Government's requested 30-year sentence "way more than would be appropriate." Hashime was sentenced to the mandatory minimum term of 15 years in prison, plus a 20-year term of supervised release.

On appeal, Hashime challenged both his conviction and sentence. The Fourth Circuit reversed his conviction, holding that the district court should have granted his motion to suppress his statements made during the interrogation. Noting that the only issue was whether Hashime was in custody, the court concluded that an objective analysis of the situation showed that a reasonable person in his situation would have understood he was in custody. The court rejected the Government's argument that officer statements that Hashime wasn't under arrest and that they were only executing a search warrant "wholly ignores the larger setting." It also rejected the Government's reliance on the fact that the questioning happened in Hashime's home. Finally, the court rejected the district court's reliance on Hashime's demeanor during the interrogation. Thus, the Miranda warnings were given too late and the error in not suppressing Hashime's statements was not harmless.

Given the resolution of the Miranda issue, the court didn't technically reach Hashime's Eighth Amendment issue. However, it did opine that:
It suffices to note that, in line with our own review of the custody issue and the district court’s comments at sentencing, this was a case in which both police and prosecution applied a heavy foot to the accelerator. We do not doubt for an instant that the defendant’s conduct here was reprehensible and worthy of both investigation and punishment, as the guilty plea attests. But attention to balance and degree often distinguishes the wise exercise of prosecutorial discretion from its opposite. For now we leave to the reflection of the appropriate authorities whether it was necessary to throw the full force of the law against this 19-year-old in a manner that would very likely render his life beyond repair.
Judge King concurred, noting that the district court's conclusion that proportionatily review under the Eighth Amendment isn't available to sentences less than life in prison is an incorrect conclusion, based on Fourth Circuit precedent.

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