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United States v. Lewis

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Southeastern Division

March 18, 2019




         This matter was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Pending before the undersigned are Defendant Christopher Dale Lewis' pretrial motions. (Docs. 53, 55, 56, 58, and 65.)

         Lewis first argues that the circumstances surrounding his April 8, 2015 interview caused him to make involuntary statements in violation of the Fifth Amendment. (Doc. 54 at 2.) To support this argument, Lewis “relies on a combination of express or implied promises of benefits or leniency combined with deceitful behavior that resulted in overbearing [his] will…” (Doc. 68 at 3.) Lewis further claims that the subsequent statements he made on February 27, 2017 were the product of his initial involuntary statement, and those derivative statements should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. Id. at 2.

         Next, Lewis asks the Court to strike the introductory paragraph in the Indictment as surplusage based on his view that it is “an unfairly prejudicial summary of the overall claim made against the defendants rather than an allegation of specific facts underlying the alleged scheme or conspiracy.” (Doc. 55.)

         Lewis further requests that the Indictment be dismissed on three separate grounds. First he suggests that the Indictment be dismissed for pre-indictment delay. (Doc. 56.) The second request for dismissal is based on an argument that Congress intended Use of Fire to Commit a Federal Felony under 18 U.S.C. § 844(h) to be a sentence enhancement rather than a separate offense from the underlying felony, in this case mail fraud. (Doc. 58.) The third ground cited for dismissal is that the Indictment is unconstitutional as applied to this case because the use of fire resulted in the burning of a private residence which is beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause. (Doc. 65.)

         The Government filed a Brief in Opposition to Lewis' Motions. (Doc. 61.)

         After an evidentiary hearing during which three law enforcement officers testified, both parties submitted memoranda. (Docs. 68, 69.)

         In consideration of the pleadings identified above, as well the exhibits admitted into evidence, the undersigned recommends that the following findings of fact and conclusions of law be adopted and that the Defendant's pretrial motions should be denied.

         I. Findings of Fact

         Defendant Christopher Dale Lewis is charged with Conspiracy to Use Fire to Commit a Federal Crime, Mail Fraud, and Aiding and Abetting the Use of a Fire to Commit a Federal Crime on August 31, 2014. On that day, a fire destroyed the home owned by Bob and Yeawon Lowery. The Lowerys were out of town at the time of the fire. Several months after the fire, investigators received information from the subject of another investigation that Lewis was the person who started the fire. Officers located Lewis when he was meeting with his State probation officer and asked him if he would be willing to talk. Lewis agreed and he was led to an interview room where he was left alone for at least four minutes.

         Ripley County Sheriff Deputy Richie Phillips entered the room and advised Lewis “You're not under arrest, okay?” Lewis responded “Yeah.” Deputy Phillips reviewed the Miranda rights with Lewis and Lewis initialed each right to affirm he understood the rights. See Gov't. Ex. #1. He also signed the “Waiver of Rights” statement that provided: “I have read the above statement of my rights and I understand each of those rights, and having these rights in mind, I waive them and I am willing to make a statement.” Id.

         Once the paperwork was signed, Deputy Phillips advised Lewis, “I want to talk to you about the fire at Bob Lowery's house.” Lewis responded, “What about it?” Deputy Phillips answered “What can you tell me about it?” He also encouraged Lewis to be careful about what he said. Lewis denied knowing anything.

         A second officer entered the room, Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeffrey Johnson. He told Lewis that Lewis had a “great opportunity” to “help [him]self out.” Sgt. Johnson also encouraged Lewis to cooperate and be on his “team.” Sgt. Johnson warned Lewis that the officers had significant evidence of his involvement in the arson case. Both officers told Lewis that the case against him was already made. When asked if he'd be on Sgt. Johnson's team, Lewis responded, “I do want to be on your team.” Before Lewis could express reluctance to talk without assurances of leniency, Sgt. Johnson interjected and said that immunity was not something the officers were able to offer. Instead, Sgt. Johnson told Lewis that since Lewis had committed a crime, something had to happen. Sgt. Johnson inquired as to why Lewis was on probation. Lewis advised it was for drugs and guns, specifying, methamphetamine and marijuana. Sgt. Johnson told Lewis that the person they were interested in was Bob Lowery, the person who benefited from the crime the most.

         The interview room had a table in one corner and three chairs. Lewis was seated in a chair that was initially in the corner. He moved it to sit closer to the table when Deputy Phillips reviewed the Miranda waiver form and then moved it back in the corner at Sgt. Johnson's request after Johnson entered the room. Lewis appeared to be comfortable speaking to the officers throughout the interview. He often had his right foot crossed over his left knee and his elbows on the armchairs. Lewis expressed himself with his hands and often leaned forward to emphasize a point.

         Additionally, Lewis advocated for himself and articulated his view that talking to the prosecutor might help. Sgt. Johnson replied that the prosecutor wouldn't be able to promise anything until Lewis shared his information. In response to Sgt. Johnson's encouragement to talk, Lewis stated, “I'm not going to put myself out there. You have no control over what happens to me…I could spend the rest of my life in prison possibly, worst case scenario.” Sgt. Johnson advised Lewis “You're not going to prison for the rest of your life for an arson.” When Lewis pressed Sgt. Johnson for the worst case scenario, Johnson replied, “You're in a boat that's sinking. All you can do at this point is start bailing.” Lewis answered, “I hear you, I hear you.” Sgt. Johnson continued to encourage Lewis to cooperate.

         Within ten minutes after Sgt. Johnson entered the room, Lewis expressed frustration about the fact no guarantees were being offered to him in exchange for his cooperation. He was also amused by Sgt. Johnson's offer to settle for an oral statement instead of having Lewis write his statement down since the interview was being recorded. Lewis replied, “Well, you're recording it, it's just like having a written statement.”

         Throughout the interview, Lewis asserted himself; he sat up straight and waved his hands at the officers. Lewis emphatically stated, “I understand, you cannot give me any guarantee that I won't go to prison over this.” In response to this declaration, Sgt. Johnson promised that he would “speak to the prosecutor” and even though Johnson couldn't promise what would happen, the prosecutor “normally listens to what I have to say.” Sgt. Johnson asked Lewis, “Show me you're not a throw away person and let me go to bat for you, alright?” Lewis agreed and confessed to his role in the fire. That confession came less than 16 minutes after he was given the Miranda warning.

         Lewis' statement about the fire took about eight minutes. When Lewis indicated he thought Lowery would talk to him about the fire, the officers exited the room and left Lewis alone for approximately 13 minutes. Deputy Phillips then returned alone and talked to Lewis for another six minutes. During this interaction, Lewis was very talkative and expressive with his hand movements. Deputy Phillips left the room for another five minutes and then returned to conclude the meeting. The time stamps on the video-player reveal that 48 minutes and 46 seconds elapsed from the time Deputy Phillips first entered the interview room until the time he and Lewis exited the room. The interview lasted a total of less than 30 minutes.

         II. Conclusions of Law

         II.A.1. ...

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