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United States v. Talley

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

January 14, 2020

GENE TALLEY, et al., Defendants.



         Defendants Syreeta Scruggs and Brianna Reid were indicted, along with three others, on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute in excess of one kilogram of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, This matter is currently before the Court on two motions: (1) Defendant Syreeta Scruggs' Motion to Suppress, Doc. #36; and (2) Defendant Brianna Reid's Motion to Suppress Statements, Doc. #44. Both motions are fully briefed. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on these motions on September 23, 2019. Doc. #55.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Special Agent Rob Mullins, of the Internal Revenue Service, and Special Agent Dave Ashley, of the Drug Enforcement Agency, interviewed Syreeta Scruggs and Brianna Reid as part of an ongoing drug trafficking investigation. Mullins and Ashley interviewed Reid on August 24, 2016, at a county jail in Greenwood, West Virginia, where she was being held on an unrelated charge. They interviewed Scruggs at the Franklin County Probation Department on September 1, 2016, after she met with her Probation Officer. The agents did not read Scruggs or Reid their Miranda rights prior to questioning them. During those interviews, each woman made certain incriminating statements which they now seek to suppress.

         II. Relevant Law

         At issue is whether Scruggs and Reid were "in custody" such that the agents were required to read them their Miranda rights prior to questioning them. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) (holding that, in order to protect the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, law enforcement officers must give certain warnings before interrogating individuals who have been placed in custody).

         As the Supreme Court noted in Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499 (2012), "'custody' is a term of art that specifies circumstances that are thought generally to present a serious danger of coercion." Id. at 508. Examining all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, the question is whether a reasonable person would have felt that he or she could terminate the interrogation and leave. Id. Relevant factors may include: (1) the location of the questioning; (2) the duration of the questioning; (3) statements made during the interview; (4) the presence or absence of physical restraints during the interview; and (5) the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning. Id.

         III. Syreeta Scruggs

         Having reviewed all evidence relevant to the circumstances surrounding Syreeta Scruggs' interview at the Franklin County Probation Office, the Court concludes that hers was not a custodial interrogation subject to the requirements of Miranda.

         Special Agents Rob Mullins and Dave Ashley interviewed Syreeta Scruggs in a conference room at the Franklin County Probation Office. Because their previous efforts to contact her at her residence had been unsuccessful, they contacted her Probation Officer Jason Otterbacher. He told them that she was scheduled to first report to him on September 1, 2016, and offered to let them speak with her then. Doc. #55, PagelD##289, 314.

         Scruggs arrived at the Probation Office and met with Otterbacher as planned. He then told her that there were some gentlemen who wanted to talk to her. He escorted her back to the conference room where Mullins and Ashley were waiting. Id. at PagelD##290-291, 298, 304. Scruggs was not physically restrained at any time. Id. at PagelD#290. Otterbacher left after Mullins and Ashley introduced themselves to Scruggs. Id. at PagelD#291. He did not lock the conference room. Id. at PagelD#295. The agents interviewed Scruggs for approximately 30-40 minutes. Id. at PagelD#307. She refused to answer some of their questions, and ultimately told them that she no longer wanted to speak to them, at which point she walked out of the conference room and left the building, Id. at PagelD##309-10, 312.

         The location of Scruggs' interview may be deemed somewhat intimidating. It was conducted in the conference room in a secured portion of the Probation Office. She was escorted there by her Probation Officer during her first visit with him and had no advance notice that Mullins and Ashley were waiting for her. Nevertheless, Otterbacher did not remain in the room, Scruggs was not physically restrained, and the door to the conference room remained unlocked at all times. Id. at PagelD#307. She walked into the room of her own volition. Id. at PagelD#291. Moreover, the interview lasted only 30-40 minutes, a duration that is typically viewed as non-custodial. See United States v. Panak, 552 F.3d 462, 467 (6th Cir. 2009).

         Otterbacher did not tell Scruggs that she was required to speak to the agents before she left or indicate that she would suffer any adverse consequences if she refused to do so. But neither did he tell her that she was free to leave without speaking to them. Doc. #55, PagelD##290-91, 298. Likewise, the federal agents did not tell her that she was required to speak to them, but neither did they tell her that she was free to leave at any time. Id. at PagelD#31 5. They did not tell Scruggs that she was under arrest. Nor did they threaten to charge her with any crimes during the interview, even when she refused to answer all of their questions, Id. at PagelD##307, 309.

         Had Otterbacher, Mullins or Ashley explicitly told Scruggs that she was not required to talk to them and was free to leave at any time, it is unlikely that Scruggs could be deemed to be "in custody." Panak, 552 F.3d at 468. However, the absence of such instructions does not automatically "transform!] the meeting into an arrest-like situation." Id. As the Sixth Circuit noted in Panak, "[i]t would be strange, indeed, to say that a telltale sign of whether an individual must be Mirandized is whether the officer gave the individual one of the Miranda warnings that she need not answer the questions." Id. at 467. All relevant circumstances surrounding the interview must be considered, In the Court's view, given the circumstances presented here, a reasonable person in Scruggs' position would have felt free ...

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