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United States v. Stanton

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

January 3, 2020



         The Honorable Debra C. Poplin, United States Magistrate Judge, filed a 59-page Report and Recommendation [R. 108], in which she recommended that Defendant's Motion to Suppress Evidence [R. 46] and Motion to Suppress Statements [R. 64], as amended [Doc. 77] be denied.

         This matter is before the Court for consideration of Defendant's objections [R. 109] to the Report and Recommendation. As required by 28 U.S.C. § 36(b)(1) and Fed. R. Civ. P., 72(b), the Court has now undertaken a de novo review of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which Defendant objects. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds Defendant's objections without merit and the objections will be overruled.

         The parties do not object to Judge Poplin's factual determinations, and the court concludes they are accurate. Judge Poplin's factual findings are as follows:[1] Beginning on October 31, 2017, Defendant Joseph Stanton was contacted by federal law enforcement regarding their investigation of an alleged marijuana distribution operation. Defendant subsequently cooperated in the federal investigation, during the course of which he made certain statements to law enforcement officials. Although Defendant had several interactions with investigators, the only relevant meetings at issue pertain to statements he made during meetings on March 5 and March 8, 2018. Defendant seeks to suppress certain statements he made to law enforcement officials during those meetings.

         In February 2018, Defendant was arrested on state charges of possession of marijuana with intent to resell. On October 2, 2018, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Defendant with one count of conspiracy to distribute 1000 kilograms of marijuana and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. During Defendant's arrest at his residence on these federal charges, law enforcement conducted a search of the house and seized a duffel bag of U.S. currency and other items of evidence. Defendant also seeks to suppress and bar admission of the currency and other items seized.

         Defendant filed six objections to the R&R. The first three objections all pertain to the suppression of statements made by Defendant in the two meetings in March of 2018. The relevant facts pertaining to those three objections are as follows: In late 2017, Defendant had several interactions with investigating officers and discussed cooperating with them and performing controlled buys. Defendant did not successfully cooperate at that time. In February of 2018, after Defendant was arrested on the state possession charges, he hired Brandi Murrell as his legal counsel. Ms. Murrell reached out to Mike Davis, a special agent with the DEA (“SA Davis”), and he informed her that Blount County Assistant District Attorney Ryan Desmond (“ADA Desmond”) would be the prosecutor for the state drug charges. During her phone call with SA Davis, Ms. Murrell told SA Davis that Defendant wanted to begin fully cooperating, and she later testified that SA Davis indicated that the DEA was still interested in his cooperation.

         Ms. Murrell testified that “[t]he biggest issue was that [Defendant]…was on unsupervised probation at the time out of Sevier County.” SA Davis talked to Defendant's probation supervisor and asked that his probation not be revoked so that he could cooperate. Ms. Murrell further testified that she and ADA Desmond discussed Defendant “being debriefed and being a source, and that he would listen and do what the DEA wanted.” Ms. Murrell confirmed that she was never granted any sort of immunity for Defendant in the state prosecution.

         ADA Desmond related his recollection of discussions with Ms. Murrell, stating that he was aware that the federal authorities were interested in talking to Defendant, as well as multiple other individuals who were involved in the investigation. While not ever reaching a formal offer, ADA Desmond suggested to Ms. Murrell that he would ultimately dismiss the state charges if Defendant was fully cooperative. ADA Desmond made no promises of immunity to Ms. Murrell and stated that he had no discussion with her about whether any statement that Defendant made to anyone would be used against him. He further stated, “[n]o one in my office, that I know of, was present or would have signed any sort of statement saying anything he used in that debrief could not be held against him. I'm not aware of anything like that. It would have been me who it would have gone through.” ADA Desmond further confirmed that he was never involved with any discussion with an AUSA regarding whether he could negotiate plea discussions and never promised Defendant that he would not be charged federally.

         Subsequently, Ms. Murrell called SA Davis, and advised him that she was representing Defendant and that they wanted to come in and talk. SA Davis testified that there were no discussions between he and Ms. Murrell about the parameters of the meeting; whether or not the meeting would be a proffer session; or whether or not any statements Defendant made during this initial meeting would be used against him. He further testified that he did not promise any form of immunity. The meeting occurred on March 5, 2018, and included Detective McCarter, Task Force Officer (“TFO”) Orr, SA Davis, Defendant, Attorney Marcos Garza, and Ms. Murrell. Detective McCarter testified that SA Davis was involved in the meeting as to his investigation of Defendant's involvement with David Wells, a co-defendant in the instant case who is also accused of distributing marijuana. No. one from the Blount County prosecutor's office or the United States Attorney's Office (“USAO”) was present at the meeting.

         Ms. Murrell testified that generally at the beginning of such meetings, which she referred to as debriefs, she makes a blanket disclaimer that the information the defendant gives in the meeting is not going to be used against him but can be used to investigate further crimes. With respect to the March 5 meeting, however, Ms. Murrell stated she could not definitively say whether her notes from the meeting reflected that she made such disclaimer because she was no longer employed by the Garza Law Firm, and no longer had access to those notes. Detective McCarter testified that he did not tell Defendant that his statements would not be used against him or make any promises of immunity. He further testified that ADA Desmond had not authorized him to engage in any sort of plea negotiation.

         TFO Orr similarly testified that there was no discussion about whether any of Defendant's statements would be used against him. He added that neither he nor anyone else in that meeting was asked by Defendant's attorneys whether Defendant's statements would be used against him. He further confirmed that he was not authorized by Blount County or anybody from the U.S. government to negotiate any sort of plea.

         During the meeting, Defendant was asked to cooperate. Detective McCarter testified that in terms of the discussion with Defendant concerning the Blount County charges, McCarter told Defendant that “if he's cooperative and honest, then I would go -- go to bat for him with the district attorney, ” but “it just depends on -- on what the district attorney wants to do.” Detective McCarter testified that Defendant was similarly told that how much his cooperation may help him would depend on what Defendant could do and what the AUSA was willing to give him for consideration. At the end of the meeting, Ms. Murrell said that she would talk to Defendant further and get back in touch.

         On March 6, 2018, Ms. Murrell sent an email to Detective McCarter. She explained that “[Defendant] has been highly concerned with the possibility of new charges arising out of any conduct discussed in the meetings. We have discussed that, and we are moving forward.” At the hearing, Ms. Murrell testified that Defendant was concerned that information divulged in the meetings would be used against him. When asked why Defendant would be concerned about statements being used against him if she had already made clear at the first meeting that they would not, Ms. Murrell answered that it was because the discussions were getting into new information that involved cross-state transactions.

         A second meeting with Defendant occurred shortly thereafter on March 8, 2018. In attendance were Detective McCarter, TFO Orr, SA Davis, Defendant, and Ms. Murrell. There were no prosecutors from Blount County or an AUSA in attendance. At the meeting, Defendant went into much greater detail about Wells' drug activity and his involvement in that activity with cross-state transactions of California to Tennessee, including dates, amounts, method of transportation, sources, and locations. He also identified several co-conspirators. Ms. Murrell testified that she interrupted the debrief and said, “hey, we're getting into multistate issues, you know, we're getting into federal kind of issues. And we just want to make sure that we've got it on the table that he's bringing up a lot of things that implicate him both, you know, state and federally. And let's kind of make sure that we're not looking to jam him up.”

         She stated that the response was something along the lines of, “we're not looking to jam him up more. If he's truthful with us, then we're going to be okay.” Ms. Murrell testified that she took this statement as an expression of good faith that they were not looking to charge Defendant federally, but that she was never promised “in those exact words.” She further stated that SA Davis never told her “in those specific words” that no federal charges would be brought against Defendant.

         SA Davis testified that “the terminology in terms of we wouldn't jam him up would reflect that he's going to get credit if he cooperates . . . [b]ut we don't know what level of credit that would be.” He further testified that he never promised Defendant that he would not be charged federally if he cooperated; never promised Defendant or his attorney that his statement would not be used against him if he cooperated; and never made any promises of immunity from prosecution regarding Defendant. SA Davis stated that what they discussed with Ms. Murrell is that Defendant may get credit based on his level of cooperation, explaining that based on their cooperation, they advise the prosecutor, whether it be state or federal, who then determines the degree of leniency that they may get.

         While Ms. Murrell stated that she did not have any expectation that what Defendant was telling the agents could later be used against him in a subsequent court proceeding, SA Davis did not recall her giving any such indication during the meeting. Both Detective McCarter and TFO Orr testified that there were no promises made at the meeting that Defendant's statements would not be used against him. Detective McCarter also stated that there were no promises of immunity made to Defendant. TFO Orr added that there was no authorization either from the USAO or Blount County ...

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