Author: Jim Chapman
In United States v. Jones, 2023 WL 5527953 (10th Cir. Aug. 28, 2023), the United States District Court for the District of Colorado denied Defendant/Appellant Nico Antwain Jones’ motion to suppress. Thereafter, Jones appealed the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. On appeal, Jones argued that the District Court clearly erred by finding that Special Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“the ATF”) had probable cause to arrest him, and therefore, the fruits of the subsequent search were admissible. Jones also argued that the District Court clearly erred by finding that he had validly waived his Miranda rights, and therefore, his confession was also admissible. The relevant facts are as follows.
In August 2020, Special Agents with the ATF began investing Jones on suspicion that he was involved with multiple reported shootings in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The agents were aware that Jones had previously been convicted of a felony, and they had information that led them to believe that he currently possessed a firearm. After observing Jones outside of an apartment complex and seeing him handle what the agents believed to be a gun, the agents arrested Jones for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
After arresting Jones, the agents obtained a search warrant and searched his vehicles, where the agents found a gun and approximately thirty-four grams of cocaine. The agents also interrogated Jones, who, after waiving his Miranda rights, admitted to possessing the gun and the drugs. Accordingly, Jones was charged with possession of a firearm as a felon and with various drug charges, all in violation of federal law.
Thereafter, Jones filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the vehicles, arguing that the agents lacked probable cause to arrest him, and therefore, all of the evidence that the agents found as a result of the arrest was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Jones also moved to suppress his confessions on Fifth Amendment grounds. Jones argued that his Miranda waiver was not valid because he had been incapacitated due to tiredness and due to having consumed drugs earlier that day.
The District Court held a hearing on Jones’ motion to suppress where the District Court watched a video of the interrogation and heard testimony from two ATF agents. Special Agent Ryan Molinari testified first. Special Agent Molinari told the District Court that, sometime around August 4, 2020, another agent, Special Agent Robert Dunning, had told him that he (Agent Dunning) suspected Jones of being involved in some reported shootings in Colorado Springs. Agent Dunning said that, despite the fact that Jones was a felon and was prohibited from possessing a firearm, he had seen recent Facebook videos showing Jones holding a gun. Agent Molinari was, then, assigned to surveil Jones.
In order to begin the surveillance of Jones, Agent Molinari drove to an apartment complex, where Jones had been known to frequent. Agent Molinari sat in his car in the parking lot for several hours before Jones pulled in driving a BMW. Jones then got out of the BMW and began to work on another car approximately thirty feet away from Agent Molinari. At some point, Agent Molinari saw Jones reach into the BMW, take out an object, and tuck it into his waistband. Agent Molinari did not see the object before Jones tucked it into his waistband, but later, he clearly saw part of the object sticking out of Jones’ pants because Jones was not wearing a shirt. Agent Molinari testified that he believed that the object was a gun based on: (1) his six-years’ experience with the ATF; (2) his ten years’ experience in the military; (3) Jones’ manner and demeanor; (4) the fact that they were investigating Jones for possessing a gun; and (5) the fact that the object looked like a gun.
During the surveillance, Agent Molinari also took pictures on his iPhone of Jones. Agent Molinari testified that he did not get a clear picture of the gun, but one picture showed something dark in Jones’ waistband. Agent Molinari then called for backup because he knew that Jones was a felon, because he believed that Jones had a gun, and because he felt that it would be safer to have another agent nearby.
Accordingly, Special Agent Robert Gillespie arrived to assist Agent Molinari. Although he parked within sight of Jones, Agent Gillespie was a little farther away than Agent Molinari was. Nevertheless, Agent Gillespie testified during the suppression hearing that he also saw Jones and the gun. At some point, Agent Dunning drove past the parking lot. Agent Dunning did not testify at the hearing, but both Agents Molinari and Gillespie testified that Agent Dunning told them that he saw the gun on Jones.
Agent Gillespie also testified about Jones’ subsequent interrogation. The interrogation began around 11:30 p.m. that night. When asked to spell his name, Jones initially spelled his middle name “A-I-N-T-W-” but quickly corrected himself to “A-N-T-W-A-I-N.” Jones told the agents that, the day before, he had been awake until 3:00 a.m., had gone home, had slept until 11:00 a.m. or noon, and had smoked some marijuana. Jones also stated that he took two Percocet pills. The interrogation video that was played at the suppression hearing showed Jones asking and answering questions, following the conversation, and telling coherent stories to the agents. Jones also volunteered information about other crimes and went into some detail about them. Agent Gillespie testified that he had conducted thousands of interrogations, including some where the suspect was too intoxicated to proceed, and in his opinion, there was no indication that stopping Jones’ interrogation was necessary due to any intoxication.
After hearing from the two witnesses, the District Court found that the agents had probable cause to arrest Jones and also found that Jones had voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived his Miranda rights. Based upon these findings, the District Court denied Jones’ motion to suppress. Thereafter, Jones pled guilty to the gun and firearm charges, but he reserved his right to appeal the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress, which he timely filed.
On appeal to the Tenth Circuit, Jones reiterated the same two arguments that he had made to the District Court in support of his motion to dismiss. As for his probable cause argument, the Tenth Circuit explained that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit warrantless arrests based on probable cause. An officer has probable cause to make a warrantless arrest when the officer has learned of facts and circumstances through reasonably, trustworthy information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person arrested.
Here, the Tenth Circuit opined that the agents knew that Jones had been convicted of a felony, and they knew that he was prohibited from possessing a firearm. Thus, the question before the Tenth Circuit was whether the District Court’s finding that the agents saw Jones in possession of a firearm was clearly erroneous.
Jones argued that Agent Molinari’s statement that he believed that Jones had a gun because they were looking for one renders his belief speculative. Jones likened his case to Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964) and to United States v. Coker, 599 F.2d 950 (10th Cir. 1979). The Tenth Circuit acknowledged that both Beck and Coker made clear that probable cause cannot exist in absence of hard facts connecting the defendant to the crime.
However, the Tenth Circuit also noted that both cases made equally clear that appellate courts defer to a district court’s factual findings and credibility determinations unless they are clearly erroneous. In this case, the District Court found, as a matter of fact, that the agents saw Jones carrying a gun. Agents Molinari and Gillespie both testified that they saw Jones with a gun and that Agent Dunning had also seen the gun. Agent Molinari testified that he had ATF and military training and experience and that he knew what a gun looked like. The agents also had a clear view of Jones for over an hour, and no evidence was presented at the suppression hearing to call the agents’ veracity into question. The Tenth Circuit stated that the mere fact that the agents were investigating Jones for illegal possession of a gun (and, therefore, had some reason to expect to see him with a gun) did not render their observations that the object that he was carrying was a gun speculative. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that the District Court did not clearly err in finding the that agents saw Jones with a gun and, therefore, had probable cause to arrest him.
As for his Miranda argument, the Tenth Circuit opined that the Fifth Amendment affords citizens the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present, and to be informed of these rights when the individual is both (1) in custody and (2) subject to interrogation by police. A suspect may waive those rights, if he so chooses, and the police may then interrogate him without an attorney present. In order to be effective, a waiver must be made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. A waiver is “knowing” and “intelligent” if it was made with a full awareness both of the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it. In making this determination, a court employes the circumstances approach. Under this approach, the court may consider, among other things, the suspect’s mental state and whether he was intoxicated.
In this case, Jones cited his lack of sleep and his drug use earlier that day as evidence that he did not knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights. Jones argued that he was substantially impaired at the time that he allegedly waived his Miranda rights because he was high on opioids and marijuana and because he had not slept to the point that he could not spell his own name. As a result, Jones argued that he was incapable of making a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his Miranda rights.
The Tenth Circuit rejected Jones’ argument, noting that the fact that a suspect used drugs earlier in the day will not, by itself, render a waiver unknowing or unintelligent, nor will tiredness. The Tenth Circuit noted that the District Court had reviewed video of the interrogation and had heard testimony from Agent Gillespie. Agent Gillespie testified that Jones did not appear so intoxicated that he felt a need to stop the interrogation. The District Court clearly believed Agent Gillespie’s testimony, and the Tenth Circuit concluded that there was no evidence suggesting that Agent Gillespie had lied. On the contrary, the video showed Jones alert, answering questions, and negotiating with the agents. In addition, Jones remembered details of events from earlier in the day and details of other crimes.
Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that the totality of the circumstances did not clearly show that Jones was too incapacitated to waive his Miranda rights knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. The Tenth Circuit also concluded that the District Court did not clearly err in finding that Jones was not incapacitated and that his Miranda waiver was valid. Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the District Court did not err by denying Jones’ motion to suppress his confession, and thus, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Jones’ motion to suppress.