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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, W.D. New York

May 1, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
TAJ WILLIAMS, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD United States District Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Defendant Taj Williams ("Defendant") has been charged in a three-count Indictment with various crimes related to a fire occurring on January 18, 2015, at 989 Chili Avenue in Rochester, New York, as follows: (1) Count One alleges that Defendant damaged and destroyed a building in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(i); (2) Count Two alleges that Defendant possessed three Molotov cocktails in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5822, 5845(a)(8), 5845(f), 5845(f), 5861(c), and 5871; and (3) Count Three alleges that Defendant possessed unregistered Molotov cocktails in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§5841, 5845(a)(8), 5845(f), 5861(d), and 5871. (Dkt. 17). This Court referred all pretrial matters and motions to United States Magistrate Judge Marian W. Payson pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) & (B). (Dkt. 18).

         Presently before the Court are Defendant's objections (Dkt. 51) to the Report & Recommendation issued by Judge Payson on April 6, 2017 (Dkt. 50). For the reasons set forth below, after a de novo review, this Court accepts and adopts the Report & Recommendation (Dkt. 50), and Defendant's motion to suppress tangible evidence (Dkt. 24) is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Defendant filed pretrial motions seeking various forms of relief, but only one is now at issue: his motion to suppress tangible evidence. (Dkt. 24 at 7-9). Specifically, Defendant contends that law enforcement conducted an illegal pre-warrant search of his vehicle, and then relied on observations from that illegal search to obtain a search warrant. (Id.).

         Judge Payson filed a first Report & Recommendation on October 26, 2016, finding, inter alia, that the Government had established that there was sufficient probable cause to support the warrant, independent of any possible illegal search of Defendant's vehicle. (Dkt. 37 at 18-22). However, Judge Payson found insufficient information in the record concerning whether law enforcement would have applied for a warrant in the absence of observations made during the pre-warrant vehicle search. (Id. at 22).

         Judge Payson conducted an evidentiary hearing on December 5, 2016, at which the Government elicited testimony from Investigator Andrew MacKenzie ("MacKenzie"), a member of the Arson Task Force who is employed by the City of Rochester Police Department. (See Dkt. 44). MacKenzie was the only witness to testify. (See id.).

         Following the hearing and the filing of post-hearing submissions, Judge Payson issued a second Report & Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that this Court deny Defendant's motion to suppress tangible evidence. (Dkt. 50). Defendant timely filed objections (Dkt. 51), and the Government timely filed its response (Dkt. 53).

         Although Defendant does not contest Judge Payson's prior determination that there was sufficient probable cause to support the warrant application even without the illegally obtained information (see Dkt. 37; Dkt. 38; Dkt. 41; Dkt. 51), Defendant does object to Judge Payson's Report & Recommendation concluding that the investigating officer would have applied for a warrant in the absence of the observations made during the pre-warrant vehicle search (see Dkt. 50; Dkt. 51).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court reviews any specific objections to a report and recommendation under a de novo standard. Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) ("A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made."). To trigger the de novo review standard, objections to a report "must be specific and clearly aimed at particular findings in the magistrate judge's proposal." Molefe v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, 602 F.Supp.2d 485, 487 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Following review of the report and recommendation, the district judge "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         Further, "[t]he Second Circuit has instructed that where a Magistrate Judge conducts an evidentiary hearing and makes credibility findings on disputed issues of fact, the district court will ordinarily accept those credibility findings." United States v. Lawson,961 F.Supp.2d 496, 499 (W.D.N.Y. 2013) (citing Carrion v. Smith,549 F.3d 583, 588 (2d Cir. 2008) ("[A] district judge should normally not reject a proposed finding of a magistrate judge that rests on a credibility finding without having the witness testify before the judge." (quoting Cullen v. United States,194 F.3d 401, 407 (2d Cir. 1999)))); Grassia v. Scully,892 F.2d 16, 19 (2d Cir. 1989) ("Had the district court rejected the magistrate's conclusions regarding the credibility of the central witnesses without hearing live testimony from those witnesses, troubling questions of constitutional due process would have ...


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