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United States v. Penn

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

September 3, 2019




         I. Introduction

         A grand jury indicted Robert Penn for being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). [Doc. 1]. This charge arose after a loaded 9mm pistol was recovered from a motel room in which Penn was present. Penn filed a Motion to Suppress [Doc. 55] requesting that the Court suppress the evidence seized and statements made as a result of police officers' warrantless entry into the motel room. The undersigned conducted a hearing on the suppression motion on May 8, 2019. Penn and his attorney, Keith Davis, were present at the hearing. AUSA Kyle Wilson represented the Government.

         The undersigned RECOMMENDS that Defendant's Motion to Suppress [Doc. 55] be DENIED for reasons set forth below.

         II. Procedural History

         Following his indictment, Defendant filed a suppression motion [Doc. 22] in February 2018. The undersigned conducted a hearing on that motion on March 28, 2019 [Doc. 29]. During the hearing, Penn's then-attorney, Gianna Maio, discovered that she had overlooked the existence of a body-cam video maintained by one of the officers. At defense counsel's request, the Court postponed the suppression hearing to allow her to review and analyze the body-cam footage.

         After reviewing the video footage, Defendant moved to strike his suppression motion. [Doc. 32]. The Court granted that motion. [Doc. 33]. The undersigned conducted Defendant's re-arraignment on May 8, 2018, and entered a report and recommendation memorializing Defendant's plea of guilty to Count 1 of the Indictment. [Doc. 37]. The District Judge entered an order adopting the undersigned's report and recommendation on May 30, 2018. [Doc. 38].

         Shortly before the date for Defendant's sentencing hearing, his attorney, Ms. Maio, filed a Motion to Request a Hearing Regarding Attorney Representation. [Doc. 41]. The undersigned conducted a hearing on that motion, relieved Ms. Maio from further representation, and appointed Attorney Keith Davis to represent Defendant. [Doc. 45]. Defendant filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea [Docs. 47, 49], which the District Judge granted by order dated February 14, 2019. [Doc. 53].

         After withdrawing his guilty plea, Defendant renewed his Motion to Suppress on March 25, 2019 [Doc. 55]. Before briefing was complete, Defendant sent a letter to the Court, complaining of "ineffective assistance of counsel." [Doc. 57]. The letter prompted Defendant's current attorney, Keith Davis, to file a Motion to Determine Status of Attorney Representation. [Doc. 58]. The undersigned conducted a hearing on the motion and denied Defendant's request for new counsel. [Doc. 64]. The Court then held a hearing on the motion to suppress. [Doc. 68].

         III. Facts

         The following chain of events led to the discovery of a firearm in Defendant's possession in a motel room in East Ridge, Tennessee. Initially, a red Ford Focus was stolen from a gas station in Chattanooga. The Chattanooga Police Department broadcasted a message to officers to be on the lookout for the stolen vehicle. Around 9:00 A.M. on the following morning, two East Ridge police officers noticed a red Ford Focus-matching the description of the stolen car-parked outside Room 141 at a local Motel 6. The motel was known to the police as a particularly high-crime location in a high-crime area. Officers ran a search of the car's registration and confirmed that it was the stolen Ford Focus.

         The officers entered the motel lobby and interviewed the motel clerk at the reception desk. The clerk advised them that a motel guest by the name of Trevor Casteel had arrived in the red Ford and rented Room 141. The clerk provided them with a copy of Casteel's identification and told officers that Casteel checked in by himself at around 2:00 A.M., but paid an additional fee for a guest. The clerk further advised the officers that, per Motel 6 policy, local residents staying at the motel were required to provide photo identification for themselves as well as for any guests staying in the room with them.

         The police officers returned to their cruiser and ran a background check on Trevor Casteel. They discovered that Casteel was a convicted felon and that he was currently on probation.[1] Armed with this information-and because Casteel had arrived in a stolen car which was parked outside his room-the police officers knocked on the door to Room 141 and announced their presence. Adjacent to the door was a window with the blinds drawn. The police saw a man peek through the blinds. After approximately one minute had elapsed, a young woman, later identified as Sarah Croy, opened the door. When Croy opened the door, officers could see Casteel, partially covered by one or more blankets, lying on one of the beds. They also observed another man, later identified as Robert Penn, dart quickly into the bathroom at the rear of the motel room.

         Concerned for their safety, the officers immediately entered the hotel room and ordered Penn out of the bathroom. Penn complied. The officers then conducted a protective sweep of the room; detained Penn, Casteel, and Croy; and read them their Miranda rights. Upon questioning by the police officers, Casteel admitted to arriving in the stolen car, although he indicated that his girlfriend was the driver.[2] When officers asked if there were any weapons in the room, both Penn and Casteel denied it.

         Officers asked Casteel-the only registered occupant of the room-for consent to search the room. Casteel provided consent to the officers to search the motel room. When the officers searched the bathroom, they found a loaded 9mm pistol with a towel wrapped around it. In a later interview, Penn admitted that he possessed the gun. More specifically, Penn said that he planned to buy the firearm from Croy and that he handled and examined it as he was deciding whether to purchase it. Penn stated that, although he did not have enough money at the time to buy the gun, he intended to get the money to purchase it. Penn stated that he came to the motel not only to examine the firearm but also to "turn up, smoke, and chill" with friends.

         At the time of the search, Penn was on probation. As part of his probation order, Penn agreed to a warrantless search of his "person, vehicle, property, or place of residence by a Probation/Parole Officer or law enforcement officer, at any time." Penn's probation officer, Andrew Gavin, testified at a hearing that he told Penn that, under this provision, a motel room would be ...

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