U.S. v. Heller

Decision Date08 January 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-30452.,07-30452.
Citation551 F.3d 1108
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Glenn HELLER, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Anthony R. Gallagher, Federal Defender, and Michael Donahoe, Senior Litigator, Federal Defenders of Montana, Helena, MO, for the defendant-appellant.

William W. Mercer, United States Attorney, and Kurt G. Alme and Marcia Hurd, Assistant United States Attorneys, Billings, MO, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Montana; Charles

C. Lovell, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CR-07-00002-CCL.

Before: HAWKINS, M. MARGARET McKEOWN, and JAY S. BYBEE, Circuit Judges.

McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:

Glenn Heller appeals his conviction following a bench trial for receipt of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(2), and possession of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Heller's conviction stems from Heller's activities while serving as a caretaker for a developmentally disabled man, J.W. The government alleged J.W. downloaded child pornography at Heller's direction for their mutual viewing. Heller first challenges the district court's pretrial rulings related to his suppression motion and his motion in limine. Heller next faults the district court's determination that his confession was voluntary. Finally, Heller asserts the government presented insufficient evidence at trial to support his conviction. We affirm his conviction.

BACKGROUND

Between 2001 and 2004, Heller served as a caretaker for J.W., a 42-year-old developmentally disabled ward of the State of Montana. In 2004, Heller was terminated as caretaker because he was spending time with J.W. after hours. J.W. later disclosed to his guardian that he had a sexual relationship with Heller while Heller was his caretaker. Heller was convicted in Montana state court on charges of criminal endangerment and sexual assault. During the course of the prosecution, child pornography files were found on J.W.'s computer. Heller denied that he had any involvement with the pornography. Heller's home and home computer were searched but authorities found no child pornography.

In 2006, a Montana police officer stopped Heller on the street and told him that he needed to go to the station to update his sex offender registration. The officer told Heller that he was not under arrest and would not be arrested when he arrived at the station. Heller agreed to go to the station later that day.

Once at the station, Heller met with the officer for a compliance check of his sex offender registration requirements. The meeting took place in a small interrogation room, and the door was never shut. At the beginning of the encounter, the officer reminded Heller that he was not under arrest. After Heller finished filling out compliance paperwork, the officer told Heller he was free to leave the station. An FBI agent then entered the room and asked Heller if they could talk about child pornography Heller may have received while caring for J.W. Heller agreed to talk to the agent, but initially denied any involvement with J.W.'s child pornography collection. The agent told Heller that new information had come to light since the state proceeding, including new statements made by J.W. and a box of compact discs ("CDs") containing child pornography. Heller stated that child pornography was saved on J.W.'s computer, and that one of the folders was entitled "glenn's files." Heller further acknowledged that he had a sexual relationship with J.W. and that they viewed child pornography together while engaging in sexual acts.

Throughout the questioning, the officer and the FBI agent reminded Heller he was free to leave and was not under arrest. After about an hour of conversation, Heller provided a written statement and initialed every line of a typewritten statement prepared by the officers. Once he finished his statements, Heller left the station. Heller was later indicted and convicted for one count of receipt of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography.

ANALYSIS
I. THE PRE-TRIAL MOTIONS

Before trial, Heller moved to suppress the statements he provided to the officer and the FBI agent. The government filed a response to the suppression motion five days late, justifying its untimely reply by explaining that the parties had been negotiating a plea agreement and the government thought a response was unnecessary while negotiations were still pending.

The district court determined that the government's explanation was corroborated by the case file. Indeed, the record supports the government's position that plea negotiations were ongoing and, during this period, Heller's counsel even asked for an extension of the plea agreement deadline.

The district court's determination that it would overlook the government's untimely filing was governed by Rule 12.1(c) of the Local Rules of Procedure for the United States District Court for the District of Montana, which states: "Failure to file briefs within the prescribed time may subject any motion to summary ruling." We review the district court's application of this local rule for an abuse of discretion. See Bias v. Moynihan, 508 F.3d 1212, 1223 (9th Cir.2007) ("A district court's compliance with local rules is reviewed for `an abuse of discretion.'" (quoting Hinton v. Pac. Enters., 5 F.3d 391, 395 (9th Cir.1993))). "Only in rare cases will we question the exercise of discretion in connection with the application of local rules." United States v. Warren, 601 F.2d 471, 474 (9th Cir.1979) (per curiam).

Rule 12.1(c) does not mandate a summary ruling for late filings. Rather, Rule 12.1(c) is permissive and a late filing "may subject [a] motion to summary ruling." In this instance, there is no indication the district court abused its discretion. The district court fairly considered the chronology of events documented by the parties. The discretionary determination to accept the late filing was not an abuse of discretion.

Heller also challenges the government's failure to respond to his motion in limine to preclude reference to his sexual relationship with J.W. and his related state court conviction. Before the government responded and before the court had the chance to rule on his motion, Heller waived his right to a jury trial. Heller feared potential jury bias could result if the jury were presented with "evidence of the homosexual relationship" between Heller and J.W. At the suppression hearing, in reference to Heller's request for a bench trial, the government informed the district court that Heller's motion in limine "may be a moot point" because there would be no jury if Heller had a bench trial.

The district court made no express ruling concerning the government's failure to reply to Heller's motion in limine. The absence of a ruling is not surprising. The need for in limine motions was moot once it was clear that Heller had waived his right to a jury trial. See Johnson v. Doughty, 433 F.3d 1001, 1007 (7th Cir. 2006) ("Johnson also had filed a motion in limine to restrict the defendants from mentioning his criminal history and prison disciplinary record at trial. (The motion later became moot when the matter was converted from a jury trial to a bench trial.)").

The term "in limine" means "at the outset." Black's Law Dictionary 803 (8th ed.2004). A motion in limine is a procedural mechanism to limit in advance testimony or evidence in a particular area. See id. at 1038-39. In the case of a jury trial, a court's ruling "at the outset" gives counsel advance notice of the scope of certain evidence so that admissibility is settled before attempted use of the evidence before the jury. Because the judge rules on this evidentiary motion, in the case of a bench trial, a threshold ruling is generally superfluous. It would be, in effect, "coals to Newcastle," asking the judge to rule in advance on prejudicial evidence so that the judge would not hear the evidence. For logistical and other reasons, pretrial evidentiary motions may be appropriate in some cases. But here, once the case became a bench trial, any need for an advance ruling evaporated.

II. THE VOLUNTARINESS OF HELLER'S CONFESSION

We now turn to the substance of Heller's suppression motion. Heller asserts that his confessions were involuntary because he was impaired by medication at the time he provided the handwritten and initialed statements to law enforcement. We review de novo the voluntariness of a confession and the factual findings supporting the determination for clear error. United States v. Gamez, 301 F.3d 1138, 1144 (9th Cir.2002). The test is well known: we determine whether, "considering the totality of the circumstances, the government obtained the statement by physical or psychological coercion or by improper inducement so that the suspect's will was overborne." United States v. Leon Guerrero, 847 F.2d 1363, 1366 (9th Cir.1988).

Heller testified at the suppression hearing that he ingested a 7.5 milligram dose of Tylenol III with codeine ("Tylenol III") in the morning of the day he made his confessions. He took the medication because he suffered from an undiagnosed illness that caused him to experience uncontrollable movement of his legs. At the time of the confessions, he felt "tired" and his hands shook uncontrollably. Heller asserted the Tylenol III "led [him] to make bad decisions" and "slowed [him] down and made [him] sleepy." He explained that the medication, when coupled with being in a small meeting room with no windows for an extended time, made his confession involuntary, as he "didn't know what else to do except admit to what the police wanted [him] to admit."

After considering Heller's claim, the district court denied the motion to suppress, finding the confessions voluntary. See United States v. Heller, No. CR 07-02-H-CCL, 2007 WL...

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