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United States v. Hashime, No. 12-5039

Decided:  October 29, 2013

The Fourth Circuit reversed Faisal Hashime’s convictions on multiple counts related to child pornography and remanded the case for further proceedings because law-enforcement agents did not read Hashime his Miranda rights until well after he made numerous self-incriminating statements during an interrogation that occurred while law-enforcement agents searched his home.

In November 2010, a law-enforcement agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit (“HSI”) discovered a naked picture of a minor boy while monitoring a website used to exchange child pornography that had the caption “Email me,”  In July 2011, the agent sent an email to the aforementioned address, asking to trade child pornography images.  In return, the agent received twenty-four images of a naked boy.  HSI traced the email account’s associated IP address and discovered that someone in the Hashime family home utilized the email account.  Based on that information, law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the email account and the Hashime’s home.  On May 18, 2012, a team of 15-30 state and federal agents executed the search warrant.  The team was equipped with a battering ram and, upon arrival, banged on the entrance to the home yelling, “Open the door.”  Hashime, who was 19 years old at the time, was living with his parents while attending a local community college.  The agents were let into the home by Hashime’s aunt and moved into the home with their guns drawn.  One of the officers entered Hashime’s bedroom and pointed a gun at him while he was in bed, naked and asleep.  The officer ordered Hashime out of bed and, after allowing him to put on boxer shorts, escorted Hashime by the arm out to the front lawn, where officers were keeping Hashime’s other family members outside.

When law enforcement finally allowed the family back into the home, they were quarantined in the living room while the officers completed their search.  Hashime was not allowed to use the bathroom until the officers completed their search and Hashime was given his clothes, but was not provided with shoes or socks.  Hashime’s mother, who was recovering from brain surgery, was not allowed to lie down.  All of Hashime’s family members were instructed that they had to be accompanied by officers at all times and the agents proceeded to interrogate each one of them individually.   Two officers escorted Hashime to the basement for questioning and the officers chose to conduct the interrogation in a room that was being used for a storage area.  According to Hashime’s mother, the officers told her that her son was under arrest.  The officers secretly recorded the interrogation of Hashime and lied to Hashime about whether they were recording the conversation.  The officers also told Hashime that he did not have to answer their questions and could leave at any time, but, at some point during the interrogation, one of the officers told Hashime, “I need to know, and I need you to be completely honest with me here even if you’re afraid, I don’t care if you say I don’t want to answer that or I’m afraid to answer it, but I need to know the truth.”  The agents did not read Hashime his Miranda rights until over two hours into the interrogation.  During the interrogation, Hashime admitted to having child pornography on his computer and provided details about how he obtained the photographs.  Hashime also provided the password to his computer and instructed the officers how to find the photographs on his hard drive.

Hashime was indicated on seven counts of production, distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography in violation of federal law.  Prior to his trial, Hashime moved to suppress the statements made to law-enforcement agents during the interrogation.  Hashime argued that he was in custody at the time of the interrogation and, because he did not receive his Miranda warnings, his statements should be suppressed.  The district court denied the motion.  The district court asserted that Hashime’s demeanor during the interrogation, his familiarity with law-enforcement practices, and his apparent lack of concern with an imminent arrest led to the conclusion that Hashime believed he was free to leave and end the interrogation at any time.  Hashime subsequently pled guilty to the receipt and possession charge, but the government pressed forward and chose to prosecute Hashime on the production and distribution charges.  Hashime was convicted of these other counts following a bench trial.  Hashime appealed and argued that his conviction should be reversed because the law-enforcement officers failed to read him his Miranda rights at the beginning of the interrogation.

The Fourth Circuit explained that, generally, law enforcement officers are required to inform individuals in custody of their Miranda rights prior to interrogation.  In order to determine whether a defendant, not under formal arrest, was in custody for the Miranda requirements to apply, the court will look at the totality of the circumstances to make an objective inquiry into whether a reasonable person in the individual’s situation would have thought they were in custody.  The Fourth Circuit noted that the government conceded it interrogated Hashime, but argued that Hashime was not in custody so agents were not required to provide Miranda warnings.  The government’s argument rested on two grounds:  “law enforcement’s conduct toward and statement to Hashime prior to and during the interrogation, and Hashime’s tone and demeanor during the interrogation.”  With respect to law enforcement’s conduct, the Fourth Circuit concluded that even though law enforcement told Hashime that he did not have to answer any of their questions and he was free to leave, the broad setting of the entire search and interrogation, including the fact that Hashime was isolated from his family during the interrogation, would lead a reasonable person to believe he was in custody.  Importantly, the Court noted that Hashime and his family were unable to move freely throughout their own home.  The Court pointed to the fact that Hashime and his family, even though they were in their own home, were required to have law enforcement escort where they went in the house changed the entire setting of the interrogation.  Because the family had lost control of their home, the fact that the interrogation was conducted in his basement did not change the fact that the interrogation was conducted in a custodial setting.

Turning to the government’s argument that Hashime’s tone and demeanor during the interrogation demonstrated that Hashime did not believe he was in custody, the Court held that such factors were not dispositive of the custodial inquiry.  Rather, the Court provided that Hashime’s attitude was more of a subjective factor that went primarily to the voluntariness of his confession and had no real bearing on the objective inquiry into whether Hashime believed he was in custody at the time of the interrogation.  Instead, an objective inquiry should be more directed towards the conduct of law enforcement and how a reasonable person would interpret their actions.  Therefore, the Court held that Hashime was in custody for the purposes of Miranda and that law enforcement’s failure to read him his Miranda rights made his testimony inadmissible and required that the conviction be reversed.  The Fourth Circuit further related that because Hashime’s conviction was reversed on the Miranda issue, the Court chose not to render a decision on Hashime’s challenge to his sentencing under the Eighth Amendment.

Full Opinion

– John G. Tamasitis