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United States v. Merrill

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 19, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RYAN D. MERRILL, Defendant

          DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          LANCE E. WALKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On October 12, 2018, Ryan Merrill was indicted on one count of possession of an unregistered silencer, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5841, 5861(d), and 5871, as well as one count of possession of a silencer not identified by a serial number, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5842, 5861(i), and 5871. Indictment (ECF No. 33). He now moves to suppress evidence gathered from his home on July 17, 2018. Mot. to Suppress (ECF No. 49). The motion is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         As established in the evidentiary hearing, Merrill resides at 14 Holly Hill Lane in Augusta, Maine. On July 17, 2018, Augusta Police Officers Christopher Hutchings and Todd Nyberg responded to reports of gunshots being fired at the residence. En route, dispatch advised Officer Hutchings that police had been called to Merrill's residence before in response to Merrill firing blank ammunition. Dispatch did not provide any additional information regarding Merrill and neither Officer Hutchings nor Nyberg checked the Augusta Police Department's “In House File” before responding to the call.

         Officers Hutchings and Nyberg arrived at Merrill's trailer at nearly the same time.[1]Both were armed and in uniform. Before approaching the front door of the trailer, the officers saw a figure-Merrill-through a large window and motioned for him to come to the door. The officers then climbed the stairs to the deck by the front door and knocked on the door. Officer Nyberg stood behind Officer Hutchings during the initial conversation.

         Merrill opened the door. In a relaxed tone, Officer Hutchings asked Merrill whether he had been shooting blanks, to which Merrill responded in the affirmative. When Officer Hutchings requested to see the gun, Merrill told Officer Hutchings that his mother had taken the gun. When Officer Hutchings asked Merrill if he could speak with Merrill's mother, Merrill indicated the gun was in his residence.

         At this point, Officer Hutchings said: “I need to see the gun and I will get out of here.” Merrill responded by stepping back from the door and stating, “Come on in.” After a brief conversation, Merrill directed the officers' attention to a firearm with an attached silencer leaning against the wall in the hallway. Merrill warned that the gun was loaded and after unloading the gun, the officers seized the weapon.

         Officer Hutchings testified that throughout the interaction, Merrill's tone remained “relaxed, very cooperative, [and] very understanding.” By Officer Hutchings' account, Merrill's demeanor and attitude toward the two officers was “accommodating, hospitable . . . overly friendly and very cooperative, [he] was almost happy to answer our questions.” Merrill did not appear to be confused and didn't give any indication of mental incapacity. Merrill did ask to take anxiety medicine near the end of the encounter.

         Unbeknownst to the officers at the time of their interaction with Merrill, Merrill has a history of mental illness. Six days prior to this interaction, Merrill was released from Maine General Medical Center against medical advice following a two-week involuntary commitment “for evaluation of a manic decompensation with psychotic features.” Motion 2; Def.'s Ex. 8.

         DISCUSSION

         Merrill argues the Augusta Police Officers violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment by “unreasonably enter[ing] and search[ing] his home, without a warrant, without valid consent, and without exigent circumstances.” Motion 5. During the evidentiary hearing, the core of the parties' arguments focused on Merrill's ability to voluntarily consent due to his mental health concerns. Upon questioning by the court at the conclusion of evidence, the issue was more refined; to wit, that Mr. Merrill's mental health made him more susceptible to feeling coerced by the APD officers to agree to enter his residence without a warrant. No. claim was made that the officers' search was warranted by exigent circumstances.

         The Fourth Amendment guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “It is a ‘basic principle of Fourth Amendment law' that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980) (quoting Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 477 (1971)). However, a warrantless search - even of a home - is not per se unreasonable if “proper consent” is “voluntarily given.” United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 165-66 (1974); Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973) (“It is equally well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent.”). Of potential significance here, “where the officer's real objective is search and seizure the householder's consent should not only be clearly voluntary, but also specifically directed toward search and not merely toward entry.” Robbins v. MacKenzie, 364 F.2d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 1966).

         Although Officers Hutchings and Nyberg did not have a warrant to search Merrill's home, my factual findings establish that Merrill, the homeowner, consented to the officers entering his home for the very purpose of seeing the firearm when he said “come on in” and stepped away from his door. Once inside, Merrill directed the officers to the firearm. The parties do not contest whether Merrill expressed his consent[2] and instead focus on whether Merrill's consent was voluntary in light of Merrill's mental illness.

         A. ...


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