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United States v. Sydnor

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

February 28, 2017



          Amul R. Thapar, United States District Judge

         While the police searched his house, Maurice Sydnor made two statements to the officer waiting with him in the living room. But he had not been read his Miranda rights. Sydnor moves to suppress those statements at trial. He also moves to suppress the statements of three eyewitnesses who identified a photo of him.


         Magistrate Judge Hanly A. Ingram has held a suppression hearing and determined the relevant facts. R. 80; R. 130 at 2-5. As neither party objects to his findings, the Court will adopt them and only give the highlights here.

         The brown bag.

         Back in June 2016, the Kentucky police were investigating a suspected drug dealer, Timothy Harris. One day they sent a confidential informant to meet Harris and his associate, “Black, ” at Black's home. After Harris got into the informant's car, Black brought a brown bag from his home and handed it to Harris. Harris then told the informant to drive away. They had not gone very far before Harris forced the informant out of the car and took off. But he did not get too far by himself, either; the car had a tracking device. Officers caught up with Harris, pulled him over, and found nearly three pounds of crystal methamphetamine in the brown bag that Black had given him.

         Those officers sought the help of Detective Larry Walker, a drug-enforcement officer, to secure a search warrant for Black's home. Black, it turns out, was defendant Maurice Sydnor. The warrant authorized the officers to search his house for drugs, guns, and ammunition. At around 2:45 a.m. the next morning, Detective Walker and other officers headed to Sydnor's house. They knocked and announced themselves, to no answer. So they forced their way in. They smelled freshly burnt marijuana. Sydnor finally emerged and identified himself as the resident. Detective Walker ordered him onto the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back. Sydnor sat on the sofa for the duration of the search (one hour and fifteen minutes total). Detective Walker sat with him.

         The statements.

         While the other officers searched, Detective Walker explained what they were looking for and why. He said that Sydnor was not under arrest (although he never told Sydnor that he was free to leave). He also said that officers believed Sydnor had handed Harris a brown bag of crystal meth the day before. To this, Sydnor responded that he did not know what was in the bag that he had handed Harris.

         About thirty minutes later, an officer called from the master bedroom that he needed a camera up there. Apparently he had found something worth photographing, though he did not say what. Nevertheless, after hearing that, Sydnor asked Detective Walker if he could put his shoes on before going to jail. Detective Walker asked, “Why would you be going to jail?” In response, Sydnor gave a hint as to what the officer might have found in his room: He said that he was a convicted felon, that the rifles were his, and that he kept them for protection. Upstairs, the officer had indeed found two rifles in the bedroom.

         After Sydnor made these two statements-the bag statement and the rifle statement- Detective Walker asked him whether he wanted to cooperate in the investigation of Harris. Sydnor declined. The officers then arrested him for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

         Photo identifications.

         Over the course of its investigation, the police showed three people a single photo. It was the picture from Sydnor's driver's license. All three of these eyewitnesses correctly identified him, either as Sydnor or Black.

         Motion to suppress.

         The government eventually indicted Sydnor for conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and heroin. Sydnor moves to suppress three things: (1) his bag statement, (2) his rifle statement, and (3) the identifications. R. 65. As to the statements, he argues that he was unlawfully arrested when he made them. R. 114 at 11-16. As to the IDs, he argues that the picture was unduly suggestive and also that cross-racial identification is inherently unreliable (the witnesses were white; Sydnor is black). Id. at 17-21.

         After the suppression hearing, R. 80, Judge Ingram prepared a thorough Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), R. 130. He reached four conclusions: First, that though Sydnor was not under formal arrest during the search, he was “in custody”-meaning the Court must suppress any non-Mirandized statements he might have made under interrogation. Id. at 2. But second, that Sydnor's bag statement was an “unsolicited voluntary utterance, ” which the government may use at trial even though Sydnor gave it without a Miranda warning. Id. Third, that Sydnor's rifle statement was a response to interrogation, which the government may not use at trial absent a Miranda warning. Id. And finally, that the photo identifications were reliable. Id. Thus, Judge Ingram recommends suppressing the rifle statement but not the bag statement or the identifications. Id. at 25.


         Sydnor and the government both object to the recommendations not in their favor. R. 139; R. 140. The Court reviews those objections de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3).


         Sydnor objects first to the conclusion that he was not under formal arrest during the search. R. 139 at 2-3. After all, officers placed handcuffs on him when they began their search. And when the handcuffs went on, he argues, he was arrested. Id. Because the officers lacked probable cause to arrest him, he says, the ...

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