112 F.3d 777 (4th Cir. 1997), 96-4242, United States v. Braxton

Docket Nº:96-4242.
Citation:112 F.3d 777
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. James BRAXTON, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:May 06, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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112 F.3d 777 (4th Cir. 1997)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,


James BRAXTON, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 96-4242.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 6, 1997

Argued April 8, 1997.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED: Rebecca A. Betts, United States Attorney, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Edward Henry Weis, First Assistant Federal Public Defender, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Margaret A. Hickey, Assistant United States Attorney, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Hunt L. Charach, Federal Public Defender, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.


Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the majority opinion, in which Chief Judge WILKINSON and Judges RUSSELL, WIDENER, WILKINS, NIEMEYER, HAMILTON, and LUTTIG joined. Judge MICHAEL wrote a concurring opinion. Judge MOTZ concurred in part III of the opinion and in the judgment. Judge HALL wrote a dissenting opinion. Judge MURNAGHAN wrote a dissenting opinion.


WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge:

James Braxton purchased twenty-nine guns within the span of eight weeks in late 1993. In July 1994, after learning of Braxton's series of gun purchases, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) initiated an investigation. In August 1994, ATF Special Agent Kay Poynter and West Virginia State Trooper Tom Ballard interviewed Braxton about the gun purchases. The interview, which took place around the kitchen table in Braxton's mother's home, lasted about an hour. During the interview, Braxton made what amounted to a confession. Braxton subsequently was indicted by a grand jury sitting in Charleston, West Virginia, on seven counts of knowingly making false statements in connection with the purchase of firearms in violation of 18 U.S.C.A. § 924(a)(1)(A) (West Supp.1997). Prior to trial, he moved to suppress the statement he made during the interview with Agent Poynter and Trooper Ballard. The district court granted Braxton's motion, determining that the statement was involuntary and ordering that it be suppressed. We granted en banc review of this case to consider the Government's appeal of the district court's order. For the reasons that follow, we hold that Braxton's statement was voluntary and that the district court erred in suppressing it. Accordingly, we reverse.


Through the receipt of several firearms forms, ATF agents discovered that Braxton had purchased multiple firearms. ATF Special Agent Kay Poynter attempted to locate Braxton so that she could question him about the purchases. After failing to locate him, she asked West Virginia State Trooper Tom Ballard to assist her. Ballard contacted Braxton on August 4, 1994, told Braxton that he and an ATF agent wanted to talk with him about his firearms purchases, and asked Braxton if he would meet them at the local police station. Braxton declined to meet them at the police station, but suggested that

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they meet the next day at "his mom's house," where he lived.

Arriving at Braxton's mother's home for the interview, the law enforcement officers displayed their badges to Braxton and explained that they "needed" to talk to him about his firearm purchases. Braxton permitted them to enter the home and invited them to sit at the kitchen table. Braxton's mother's boyfriend was initially present in the home and shortly after he left, Braxton's sister arrived. The officers did not inform Braxton of his right to remain silent, nor did they tell him that he was required to answer their questions. During the interview, Braxton admitted that he had purchased firearms for a third party. He also complied with the officers' request that he provide them with a picture of himself.

The district court enunciated three independent rationales for finding that Braxton's statement should be suppressed as involuntary. First, the district court held that the confession was involuntary because Agent Poynter and Trooper Ballard told Braxton that they "needed" to talk to him, rather than that they "would like" to talk to him. As support for this holding, the district court determined that Braxton's "comment that he felt intimidated in the presence of the two law enforcement officers was a credible statement." (J.A. at 160.) Second, the district court found that Trooper Ballard told Braxton "that he was not 'coming clean' and that he could face five years jail time as a result." (J.A. at 161.) The district court construed this statement to be both a threat and an implied promise, and concluded that the Trooper's statement rendered Braxton's confession involuntary. Finally, the district court held that the confession was involuntary because Agent Poynter and Trooper Ballard failed "to advise [Braxton] as to why they 'needed' to question him or tell him of the possible consequences he faced as a result of answering their questions." (J.A. at 161.) Although the district court acknowledged that Braxton was not in custody, the court nevertheless concluded that his statement was involuntary.


The admissibility of Braxton's statement turns on whether the statement was voluntary under the Fifth Amendment which guarantees that "[n]o person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ... without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. V; accord Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 7, 84 S.Ct. 1489, 1493, 12 L.Ed.2d 653 (1964) (holding that when "a question arises whether a confession is incompetent because not voluntary, the issue is controlled by that portion of the Fifth Amendment to the [C]onstitution of the United States commanding that no person 'shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself' " (quoting Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542, 18 S.Ct. 183, 186, 42 L.Ed. 568 (1897))). A statement is involuntary under the Fifth Amendment only if it is "involuntary" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. See Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, 304, 105 S.Ct. 1285, 1290, 84 L.Ed.2d 222 (1985) (citing Haynes v. Washington, 373 U.S. 503, 83 S.Ct. 1336, 10 L.Ed.2d 513 (1963); Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716 (1940)). The test for determining whether a statement is voluntary under the Due Process Clause "is whether the confession was 'extracted by any sort of threats or violence, [or] obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, [or] by the exertion of any improper influence.' " Hutto v. Ross, 429 U.S. 28, 30, 97 S.Ct. 202, 203, 50 L.Ed.2d 194 (1976) (alterations in original) (quoting Bram, 168 U.S. at 542-43, 18 S.Ct. at 186-87). In Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 107 S.Ct. 515, 93 L.Ed.2d 473 (1986), the Supreme Court held that "coercive police activity is a necessary predicate to the finding that a confession is not 'voluntary' within the meaning of the Due Process Clause." Id. at 167, 107 S.Ct. at 521.

The mere existence of threats, violence, implied promises, improper influence, or other coercive police activity, however, does not automatically render a confession involuntary. The proper inquiry "is whether the defendant's will has been 'overborne' or his 'capacity for self-determination critically impaired.' " United States v. Pelton, 835

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F.2d 1067, 1071 (4th Cir.1987) (quoting Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 2046, 36 L.Ed.2d 854 (1973)). Any statement given freely and voluntarily without any compelling influences is admissible in evidence. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 478, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1629, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). The Government bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the statement was voluntary. See Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489, 92 S.Ct. 619, 626, 30 L.Ed.2d 618 (1972).

To determine whether a defendant's will has been overborne or his capacity for self-determination critically impaired, courts must consider "the 'totality of the circumstances,' including the characteristics of the defendant, the setting of the interview, and the details of the interrogation." Pelton, 835 F.2d at 1071 (quoting United States v. Wertz, 625 F.2d 1128, 1134 (4th Cir.1980)); accord Ferguson v. Boyd, 566 F.2d 873, 877 (4th Cir.1977) (per curiam) (holding that "a finding of coercion and involuntariness must be based upon a careful consideration of the totality of the circumstances" (citing Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 226, 93 S.Ct. at 2047)); see also Haynes, 373 U.S. at 513-14, 83 S.Ct. at 1342-44 (noting that appellate court must review the totality of circumstances surrounding the statement). On review, "[a]n appellate court must make an independent determination on the issue of voluntariness," while accepting "the district court's findings of fact on the circumstances surrounding the confession ... unless clearly erroneous." Pelton, 835 F.2d at 1072 (citations omitted). We address in turn each of the district court's three rationales for suppressing Braxton's statement.


First, the district court erred in determining that the officers unlawfully interrogated...

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