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United States v. Benally

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 21, 2018



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court following a hearing on Defendant Darren Benally's Motion to Suppress Custodial Statements to Law Enforcement and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 32, filed 8/23/18). Having reviewed the pleadings of the parties, considered the testimony and evidence presented at the October 15, 2018 suppression hearing, and considered the oral arguments of counsel and the applicable law, the Court finds that Defendant's motion is not well-taken and, therefore, is DENIED.

         Defendant Darren Benally (“Defendant”) filed the instant Motion to Suppress Custodial Statements to Law Enforcement (Doc. 32) on the grounds that Defendant did not receive an adequate Miranda warning because it was delivered to him in English, and that he did not knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights. The Court held a suppression hearing on October 15, 2018, during which the Government submitted the testimony of four witnesses.[1] The Government presented the testimony of Shiprock Police Officer Lojann Dennison, FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Wright, San Juan Spring Company Machine Shop supervisor Ronald Johnson, and San Juan College faculty member John Hoff. Both parties submitted argument and exhibits, including the audio recording of the interrogation of Defendant (Government Ex. 1) and the transcript of the audio recording (Government Ex. 1A, Defense Ex. A), [2] which were admitted without objection. Prior to the hearing, the Government had maintained that although Defendant was interrogated, he was not in custody and the Miranda requirement thus did not apply to the interrogation. At the hearing, however, the Government changed its position and conceded that Defendant was in a custodial interrogation, and, therefore, the Miranda warning was required. Tr. at 101:18-21. The Court now finds that the evidence shows that Defendant understood the Miranda warning delivered in English to the degree required by the Supreme Court of the United States and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and that Defendant did knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights on March 27, 2018.


         I. Factual findings

         In the evening of March 27, 2018, the Shiprock Police dispatch received a call reporting a male bleeding from the head. Shiprock Police Officer Lojann Dennison (“Officer Dennison”) responded to the scene near the Sanostee Chapter House in Sanostee, New Mexico, at approximately 8:22 p.m.[3] John Doe's body was on the ground, covered with a blanket. Officer Dennison questioned witnesses at the scene and called for an investigator from the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations.

         Prior to the criminal investigator or FBI special agent arriving, Officer Dennison detained Defendant by placing him in the backseat of her marked Navajo Police Department vehicle, where Defendant remained for up to three hours. Officer Dennison did not place any restraints on Defendant, and Defendant was free to move in the backseat of the Navajo Police vehicle. The back doors were locked and could only be opened from outside of the vehicle. Defendant did not ask to use the restroom or to exit the vehicle, although he did complain in English about his legs feeling cramped. Officer Dennison advised Defendant in English that he could sit sideways in the backseat. Officer Dennison did not interrogate Defendant, but she did ask him for identifying information including his name, date of birth, Social Security number, his address and P.O. Box number. She did not Mirandize Defendant before or after asking him about his identifying information. She testified that she asked these question in English and he responded appropriately in English. Tr. at 10:19-11:1. Officer Dennison testified that, in her opinion, Defendant was not free to leave the vehicle. Tr. at 22:25-23:1.

         Navajo Criminal Investigator Wilson Charley (“CI Charley”) arrived at the scene, as did FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Wright (“SA Wright”). It is not clear from the record the exact times that CI Charley and SA Wright arrived at the scene, but both were there by about 10:30 p.m. SA Wright is based in Farmington, New Mexico, and is tasked primarily with investigating crimes that occur in Indian Country. SA Wright testified that when he arrived at the scene, he was dressed in civilian clothes and that his badge and weapon were covered. He testified that CI Charley was dressed in a similar manner, and that CI Charley's weapon and badge were also covered. Sometime close to 11:30 p.m., SA Wright and CI Charley met Defendant and escorted him from the Navajo Police vehicle to CI Charley's unmarked police vehicle. SA Wright asked Defendant to sit in the front passenger seat of CI Charley's vehicle, while SA Wright sat in the driver's seat and CI Charley sat in the back seat behind Defendant. CI Charley's vehicle was an unmarked police SUV that had the appearance of a civilian vehicle. It was approximately 34 degrees outside, and CI Charley's vehicle provided heat and privacy. The doors of the vehicle remained unlocked during the interview and Defendant was never handcuffed during the interrogation.

         CI Charley and SA Wright (collectively “agents” for ease) conducted a recorded interrogation of Defendant from 11:34 p.m. to 12:51 p.m. in CI Charley's vehicle (one hour and seventeen minutes). See Ex. 1 (audio recording) and Ex. 1A (recording transcript). Prior to delivering the Miranda warning, SA Wright asked Defendant biographical and identifying information, including his full name, Social Security number, birthdate, physical address, where he was employed, and some educational background. Ex. 1A at 2-6. Before reading the Miranda warning, the following exchange took place regarding the Advice of Rights Form (Government Ex. 2):

SA WRIGHT: And so it's important for us just to find out, you know, everything we can, whatever bits of information that you think might be helpful for us, so that we can figure that out. All we care about is -- is truth. That's it. We're just trying to -- to find out, you know, the truthfulness of any situation. And, you know, my understanding is you were out here. And -- and you can kind of help give from what you saw, heard, smelled, you know, everything just that you can remember to help kind of piece that together. Does that make sense?
SA WRIGHT:··And so we want to go over that. Now, before we talk to you, we always like to go over --·I don't know if you watch TV or movies. We always go over advice of rights and things --
MR. BENALLY:··Uh-huh.
SA WRIGHT:··-- just to make sure you understand what those things are.··And if you have any questions, feel free to ask them to me, too.··Do you read -- do you read English well?
MR. BENALLY:··Uh, not --
SA WRIGHT:··Or do you want --
MR. BENALLY: - not -- not -
SA WRIGHT: - me to read it to you?
MR. BENALLY: Yeah, yeah.
SA WRIGHT: It's late, too.
SA WRIGHT: So I understand that, also, you know.
SA WRIGHT: Um -- MR. BENALLY: English wasn't my first language, but -
MR. BENALLY: I -- I -- I -- I kind of know it.
SA WRIGHT: You speak Navajo?
SA WRIGHT: Man, talk about a tough language. That's one that I -- I wish I had down.

Ex. 1A at 6:25-8:15. SA Wright then explained that he was filling out the date and time on the waiver form and that he was going to read the form to Defendant. SA Wright read the following:

Before we ask you any questions, you must understand your rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right have a lawyer with you during questioning.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning, if you wish. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you have the right to stop answering at any time.

Tr. at 9:3-14. The following exchange took place after Defendant was Mirandized:

SA Wright: And then do you have any questions on any of those things there? I mean, do you they ...

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