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United States v. Watkins

United States District Court, W.D. New York

February 7, 2014

CHARLES WATKINS, a/k/a PINGY, et al., Defendant.


RICHARD J. ARCARA, District Judge.

The defendant, Charles Watkins, is charged with participating in criminal activities of a gang in Buffalo, New York, referred to as the 10th Street Gang. Defendant Watkins is charged in three counts of a Fourth Superseding Indictment with racketeering conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1962(d) (Count 1), drug-trafficking conspiracy in violation of 21 U.S.C. §846 (Count 62), and possession of a firearm during commission of a drug-trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. §924(c) (Count 63). Dkt. No. 408. Jury selection and trial will begin March 25, 2014.

Defendant Watkins has moved to suppress oral statements made at various times and to suppress items seized from his residence during a warrantless search on May 5, 2011. Dkt. Nos. 509, 1201. The Court held a suppression hearing January 28, 2014 and February 3, 2014, and heard oral argument at the close of the hearing.[1] For the following reasons, the Court denies defendant's motions to suppress.

August 13, 2004 Oral Statements. The first statements defendant Watkins moved to suppress are oral statements he allegedly made without having been given Miranda warnings during a traffic stop by City of Buffalo Police on August 13, 2004. Buffalo Police Officer Jason Mayhook, who is now a Detective, observed a car traveling on Plymouth Avenue near Hudson Street in Buffalo at about 5:40 a.m. on August 13, 2004, and suspected the driver's vision was illegally obstructed by items hanging from a rear-view mirror. Officer Mayhook attempted to stop the car, a Dodge Neon, using his police car's flashing overhead lights.

When the Neon did not immediately pull over, and then failed to stop at a stop sign at the intersection of Plymouth Avenue and Pennsylvania Street in Buffalo, Officer Mayhook activated the siren on his police car. The Neon still did not stop until about two blocks later, near 316 Jersey Street, just off Plymouth Avenue.

Defendant Watkins was the driver of the Neon. There were two other persons in the car. Without administering Miranda warnings, Officer Mayhook asked defendant Watkins why he had not pulled over sooner in response to the flashing lights and siren. Defendant said there was no place to pull over. Officer Mayhook walked with defendant the short distance toward Plymouth Avenue, looked back down Plymouth Avenue, a one-way street, and said, "There were plenty of places to stop." Defendant responded by saying "My bad, yo, " or words to similar effect.[2]

Defendant Watkins argues in support of his motion to suppress that, when he was asked why he did not stop sooner and to acknowledge there were plenty of places to have stopped the car, he was in police custody and had not been given Miranda warnings. In general, statements that are in response to police interrogation by a person who is in police custody are excluded at trial unless the person was first advised of the rights against self-incrimination and to legal counsel as required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and the person knowingly and voluntarily waived those rights.

In determining whether a person was actually in police custody for Miranda purposes, "the ultimate inquiry is simply whether there [was] a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125 (1983); see also Howes v. Fields, 132 S.Ct. 1181, 1189-90 (2012); United States v. FNU LNU, 653 F.3d 144, 148, 153 (2d Cir. 2011). The test for custody in this context is an objective one, based upon the perspective of a reasonable person in the suspect's position. See Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442 (1984).

Persons detained during a routine traffic stop by police, although not free to leave, are subject to a significantly less coercive detention than a formal arrest, so it is firmly settled "that persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not in custody' for the purposes of Miranda. " Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 440-42; United States v. Wong Ching Hing, 867 F.2d 754, 756 (2d Cir. 1989). That a routine traffic stop is not "custody" for Miranda purposes does not necessarily mean that a traffic stop never involves "custody" with the degree of restraint for which Miranda warnings are required before police questioning, however. See e.g., United States v. Newton, 181 F.Supp.2d 157, 170 (E.D.N.Y. 2002). "Custody" for Miranda purposes occurs when coercive restraints amount to a formal arrest.

The Court finds the early-morning traffic stop leading to defendant Watkins' statements on August 13, 2004 was brief, public and routine, and a reasonable person in the circumstances would not feel "completely at the mercy of the police" as might be expected if it had been a formal arrest and interrogation. See United States v. Newton, 369 F.3d 659, 675 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). For example, the two-step display of authority by Officer Mayhook, with overhead flashing lights activated substantially before the police car's siren, was slightly less coercive than even a routine traffic stop.

Nothing suggests Officer Mayhook used or threatened the use of force at any time, such as by displaying a weapon or otherwise intimidating or coercing defendant, before defendant Watkins spoke. Even though defendant accompanied Officer Mayhook from 316 Jersey Street to look back down Plymouth Avenue, the Court finds in the totality of the circumstances defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes when he was asked why he did not stop sooner and when he was asked to acknowledge that there were plenty of places he could have pulled over on Plymouth Avenue. Defendant was therefore not entitled to Miranda warnings at the time he made the alleged admission that he could have pulled over.

Similarly, nothing Officer Mayhook did was close to overbearing defendant Watkins' will to resist questioning. The totality of the circumstances also show defendant's statements were made voluntarily. Defendant's motion to suppress his alleged August 13, 2004 statements is denied.

May 15, 2009 Oral Statements. Defendant Watkins also moved to suppress statements he allegedly made May 15, 2009, after having been arrested and handcuffed by Buffalo Police Lieutenant Steven Malkowski near 180 West Street, Buffalo. Defendant had run from 257 Whitney Place, while being chased by other police officers.

Defendant Watkins acknowledged during his testimony on cross examination during the suppression hearing on February 3, 2014, that he was given Miranda warnings by Lieutenant Malkowski shortly after he was arrested near 180 West Street on May 15, 2009. Defendant also acknowledged that, based upon his personal experience in the ...

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