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United States v. Atkinson

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

March 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MAKEDA ATKINSON, Defendant.

          ORDER AND MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BENJAMIN W. CHEESBRO, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Defendant Makeda Atkinson (“Mr. Atkinson”) has been indicted on six felony counts related to the sale of drugs, including fentanyl, that allegedly resulted in the death of an individual identified as L.M. Before the Court are nine discovery motions by Mr. Atkinson, docs. 42, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, and 52. Mr. Atkinson also filed a Motion to Determine Voluntariness of Statements under Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964), doc. 49, and a Motion to Dismiss Count Three of the Indictment, doc. 44. The Government filed a Motion for Reciprocal Discovery. Doc. 57.

         The Court held a motions hearing on March 5, 2019. Doc. 76. During the hearing, the parties informed the Court that, as of the date of the hearing, all discovery issues had been resolved. Accordingly, the Court DENIES as moot Mr. Atkinson's discovery motions, docs. 42, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, and 52, as well as the Government's Motion for Reciprocal Discovery, doc. 57. For the reasons that follow, I GRANT Mr. Atkinson's Motion to Determine Voluntariness of Statements, doc. 49, and RECOMMEND that the Court find that Mr. Atkinson's statements were voluntary. Additionally, I RECOMMEND the Court DENY Mr. Atkinson's Motion to Dismiss Count 3 of the Indictment, doc. 44.

         I. Motion to Determine Voluntariness of Statements (Doc. 49)

         A. Mr. Atkinson's Statements

         The grand jury indicted Mr. Atkinson for several offenses, including alleged drugs sales occurring from September 2017 through January 2018, and one particular transaction on December 28, 2017, that purportedly resulted in the death of L.M. Doc. 21. Mr. Atkinson was arrested and interrogated on September 23, 2018.[1] Investigator Stephen Lowrey of the Glynn County Police Department testified that Mr. Atkinson was arrested at 8:25 p.m. and transported from the scene of the arrest to the Glynn County Police Department headquarters at 9:45 p.m. Investigator Lowrey and Special Agent John Wood of the Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogated Mr. Atkinson at the Glynn County Police Department Headquarters for approximately two-and-a-half hours, between roughly 10:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. The interrogation included, among other things, questions about Mr. Atkinson's involvement in the December 28, 2017 drug transaction. Mr. Atkinson filed a motion in accordance with Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964), seeking a determination as to the voluntariness of the statements he made during the September 23, 2018 interrogation.

         The Government provided video footage of the September 23, 2018 interrogation to the Court prior to the March 5, 2019 motions hearing, and this footage was admitted into evidence during the hearing. Doc. 76. No. party disputes the video's accuracy or completeness. Investigator Lowrey testified regarding the interrogation at the March 5, 2019 hearing and stated that, although Mr. Atkinson admitted to being a drug user, he appeared sober and coherent at the time of his interrogation. He also stated that the interrogation began just under two hours after Mr. Atkinson's arrest and approximately 30 minutes after Mr. Atkinson was removed from the scene of his arrest.

         The video footage provided by the Government shows the interrogation took place in what appears to be a small room with a table, three chairs, and no windows. The footage begins with a time stamp of “09/23/2018 22:00:41.”[2] At the start of the video, Mr. Atkinson is seated alone at the table in the interrogation room. Mr. Atkinson remains alone in the room for approximately 20 minutes, aside from a police officer entering the room once and providing Mr. Atkinson with a beverage. At time stamp 22:22:42, Investigator Lowrey and Agent Wood entered the room. Investigator Lowrey then read Mr. Atkinson his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and Mr. Atkinson executed a waiver acknowledging that he was aware of those rights. Doc. 68 at 22:23:30. Investigator Lowrey and Agent Wood proceeded to question Mr. Atkinson about various topics, including his current and past participation in drug sales and distribution, potential evidence, the December 28, 2017 drug transaction, and L.M. Id. Aside from a few short breaks, the questioning continued for approximately two-and-a-half hours, until 00:54:07. Id. Throughout the interrogation, Investigator Lowrey and Agent Wood encouraged Mr. Atkinson to be honest but did not promise Mr. Atkinson anything in return for his cooperation. See, e.g., id. at 22:39:30-22:40:40. Although Investigator Lowrey and Agent Wood conducted most of the interrogation, at one point, Sergeant Gregory of the Glynn County Police Department entered the room and questioned Mr. Atkinson regarding drugs found in his vehicle during his arrest. Id. at 00:26:46. Sergeant Gregory mentioned that some drugs were found in the possession of Mr. Atkinson's girlfriend (who was with Mr. Atkinson at the time of his arrest). Id. at 00:27:02. Mr. Atkinson stated all narcotics confiscated during the arrest were his. Id. at 00:27:30-00:28:30. At no point during this exchange did Sergeant Gregory promise more lenient treatment to Mr. Atkinson or his girlfriend in return for Mr. Atkinson's cooperation. Near the end of the interrogation, Mr. Atkinson was visibly tired, asked for a sheet or blanket, and briefly laid on the floor, appearing to fall asleep. Id. at 00:54:20. No. questioning occurs after Mr. Atkinson asked for a sheet or blanket, and the video footage concludes shortly thereafter.

         B. Legal Standard

         The United States Supreme Court's holding in Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964), governs the voluntariness of confessions and, in pertinent part, provides:

It is now axiomatic that a defendant in a criminal case is deprived of due process of law if his conviction is founded, in whole or in part, upon an involuntary confession, without regard for the truth or falsity of the confession, and even though there is ample evidence aside from the confession to support the conviction.

378 U.S. at 376 (internal citation omitted). A confession is not voluntary pursuant to the Due Process Clause when law enforcement officials have used coercive conduct. Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 167 (1986). Coercion can be mental or physical. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 206 (1960); Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237 (1940). The test for determining if a confession is the result of coercion requires a review of the totality of the circumstances. Blackburn, 361 U.S. at 206 (citing Fikes v. Alabama, 352 U.S. 191, 197 (1957)). In examining the totality of the circumstances, it must be determined whether “the statement is the product of the accused's free and rational choice.” Harris v. Dugger, 874 F.2d 756, 761 (11th Cir. 1989). These potential circumstances include not only the crucial element of police coercion, but the length of the interrogation, its location, and its continuity, and the defendant's maturity, education, physical condition, and mental health. These circumstances also include the failure of police to advise the defendant of his rights to remain silent and to have counsel present during custodial interrogation. Withrow v. Williams, 507 U.S. 680, 693-94 (1993) (internal citations omitted). “Sufficiently coercive conduct normally involves subjecting the accused to an exhaustingly long interrogation, the application of physical force or the threat to do so, or the making of a promise that induces a confession.” United States v. Thompson, 422 F.3d 1285, 1295-96 (11th Cir. 2005). Government coercion is a necessary predicate to a finding of involuntariness under the Fifth Amendment. However, “[a]bsent police conduct causally related to the confession, there is no basis for concluding that any state actor has deprived a criminal defendant of due process of law.” Id. at 1296.

         C. Mr. Atkinson's Statements Were Voluntary

         Considering the testimony and argument presented at the March 5, 2019 hearing and the video footage of Mr. Atkinson's September 23, 2018 interrogation, I find that Mr. Atkinson's statements ...


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