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United States v. Rankins

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

May 14, 2014



ROBERT M. DOW, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Daniel Rankins' motion to suppress evidence [36]. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is denied.

I. Background

The Seventh Circuit has described "the resolution of a motion to suppress" as a "fact-intensive inquiry" in which the district court must make "credibility determinations" based on "its opportunity at the suppression hearing to hear the testimony and observe the demeanor of the witnesses." United States v. Kempf, 400 F.3d 501, 503 (7th Cir. 2005); see also United States v. Springs, 17 F.3d 192, 194 (7th Cir. 1994) (explaining the deference given to the credibility determinations of the district judge who has "heard the conflicting testimony, observed the witnesses, and then reached a determination about whom to believe"). In this case, the Court conducted a suppression hearing on February 11, 2014, during which counsel for the Government presented the testimony of Special Agent Craig Henderson and counsel for Defendant presented the testimony of Megan Hammond, a gas station attendant who witnessed Defendant's encounter with federal agents. After considering the testimony of the witnesses and assessing their opportunity to observe and hear the events as they unfolded, and their credibility, the Court sets forth the following recitation of the facts surrounding the encounter between Defendant and federal agents that gave rise to the motion to suppress currently before the Court.

On January 7, 2013, FBI agents conducted an undercover operation to investigate a suspected bankruptcy fraud scheme believed to be operating in or near the City of Chicago Department of Revenue. Federal agents believed that the scheme went something like this: Car owners whose cars had been towed and impounded by the City would go to the Department of Revenue to pick up a "hot desk sheet, " which is a bill showing the fines and fees that must be paid to retrieve an impounded car. Individuals participating in the suspected scheme would intercept car owners who had picked up a "hot desk sheet" but not yet paid its enumerated penalties. The schemers would tell the car owners something to the effect of, "For a certain price we can get your car out without you having to pay the City fines and fees." If a car owner was interested, and paid the schemers their requested fee, the schemers would help him or her prepare and file a federal bankruptcy petition listing the City of Chicago, the Department of Revenue, and the impound lots as creditors. After filing the petition and triggering the operation of the "automatic stay" against the named creditors, see 11 U.S.C. ยง 362, the car owner would return to the Department of Revenue, present the bankruptcy paperwork, and retrieve the impounded car without paying the City-assessed fees and fines listed on the "hot desk sheet."

On January 7, 2013, Agent Henderson and other federal agents "looking to develop the subjects of the investigation" conducted surveillance near the Department of Revenue building at 400 West Superior Street. The surveillance began around 9:15 a.m. The agents ran the license plates of a white Chevrolet that they saw leaving the Department of Revenue at about 10:00 a.m. and learned that the white Chevy was registered to Defendant. At some point "early on" in the surveillance, the agents observed and took photographs of several people standing outside the Department of Revenue. Defendant was among those photographed.

As part of the operation, an undercover agent ("UA") wearing a concealed recording device and carrying $600 in prerecorded, government-provided cash went into the Department of Revenue building with the hopes that someone would solicit him to take part in the suspected scheme. The UA's recording device did not operate a live feed to the surveillance team outside, so the UA periodically telephoned the team to keep them apprised of goings-on inside the building. At around 2:40 p.m., the UA informed the rest of the surveillance team that he had been solicited to take part in the suspected bankruptcy scheme. The UA further advised that he had paid the $600 in cash to a man who was driving the white Chevy registered to Defendant.

At around the same time, Agent Henderson observed the white Chevy exit the parking lot at the southwest corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Sedgwick Street. Defendant was the driver and sole occupant of the car. Agents observed the Chevy pull into a Shell gas station at the northwest corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Orleans Street. Defendant parked the car at a gas pump about 20-25 feet away from the gas station mini-mart, got out of the car, and went into the mini-mart. The clerk, Megan Hammond, testified that Defendant asked her to put $10 on the pump. While Defendant was in the mini-mart, Agent Henderson and Agent Brackins pulled into the gas station and parked their unmarked vehicle directly behind Defendant's car, facing in the same direction. The witnesses agree that two additional federal agents arrived at the gas station at some point. The Court credits Agent Henderson's testimony that there were at least three unmarked FBI vehicles on the scene. (Ms. Hammond testified that she saw only two: "a big van" and "a smaller sedan.") According to Agent Henderson, one of the vehicles was parked on the opposite side of the pump from Defendant's car; the vehicle was parallel to Defendant's, with the pump in between the two cars. It is not clear from the record where the third vehicle was parked.

Agents Henderson and Brackins approached Defendant when he exited the mini-mart. Both agents were dressed in plainclothes. Both were armed, but neither had his weapon drawn. Agent Henderson was on one side of Defendant, and Agent Brackins was on the other. Agents Henderson and Brackins identified themselves as FBI agents and told Defendant that he was being detained but was not under arrest. It is unclear which agent told Defendant that he was being detained; Agent Henderson testified primarily in terms of "we." It also is unclear when precisely the other two agents joined the trio near Defendant's car. Agent Henderson testified that they "showed up" "a minute or two later, " or "a minute or so" after Agents Henderson and Brackins initially approached Rankins, but also stated that "there were two other agents out there at the time" of the initial approach. According to Ms. Hammond, who testified that she could "see everything" from her vantage point in the mini-mart, notwithstanding the advertisements hanging in the windows, but could not hear any portion of the encounter, "four guys came out of each - combined in both cars and started to arrest the guy." For the purposes of this motion, the Court will assume that all four agents were on the scene from the moment that Agents Henderson and Brackins approached Defendant.

According to Agent Henderson, he or one of the other agents instructed Defendant to put his hands on his car. "We" placed handcuffs on Defendant, and Agent Henderson performed a pat-down search. The search turned up Defendant's cell phone and car keys, which agents removed from his possession and placed on the exterior of his car. Agent Henderson also felt and recovered two "wads" of cash: $600 from one of Defendant's pants pockets and $760 from the other. The agents compared the cash to photocopies of the money that had been issued to the undercover agent and determined that the $600 was the same $600 that had been in the UA's possession earlier that day. Agent Henderson seized the $600 and gave Defendant a receipt for it. Because the agents were unable to determine the origin of the $760, they returned that money to Defendant at the scene. The agents did not advise Defendant of his Miranda rights.

After Defendant was handcuffed and patted down, the agents asked him to identify himself; they had not found any identification during the search of his person. Defendant told the agents that his name was Daniel Devon Rankins. The agents ("we") then told Defendant that they "were investigating this" and believed that he had been paid $600 by the UA in exchange for facilitating the filing of a fraudulent bankruptcy petition. According to Henderson, Defendant responded, "I did it."

The agents then asked Defendant if they could search his car. Defendant, who was still handcuffed and standing outside the car, verbally agreed to the search. Defendant did not complete a written consent form. Two agents stood at Defendant's sides while the other two agents searched his car. The car search turned up a flyer advertising services to get vehicles out of the City impound lot.

After the car search, while Defendant was still handcuffed, the agents (again, "we") "asked him if he would cooperate." Agent Henderson testified that Defendant agreed to cooperate with the agents. The testifying witnesses offered competing accounts of what happened next. Agent Henderson testified that after Defendant agreed to cooperate, while he was still near his car, "[a]t that point we unhandcuffed him, advised him again that he was free to leave and that he was not under arrest and then we escorted him to one of the agents' vehicles." Agent Henderson further testified that Agent Hart pulled his car in, lights forward, " into "like a trash bin area and a little pull-in area, " and "then we entered the vehicle." Agent Henderson was "not sure" how Defendant got into the car, but did not recall personally putting him in. According to Agent Henderson, Defendant "made it clear that he wanted to cooperate" again after the cuffs were removed, and was given his cellphone back around that time. Defendant did not receive his keys, however, until he was inside the sedan, "after his vehicle was moved from the pump by one of the agents." Ms. Hammond testified that Defendant remained handcuffed upon leaving the gas pump and that the agents "walked him over to the other spot, " which was a "handicapped parking spot where the small sedan was parked, " near the front of the mini-mart but off to one side, toward an alley-type area containing a trash dumpster. She stated that the agents then "put [Defendant] into the smaller sedan, " but agreed on cross-examination that she did not see agents "put their hands on the defendant's head to get him in the car, " and that Defendant "just got in" to the car. Ms. Hammond stated that she did not see any of the agents "moving the other cars around."

As noted above, the witnesses at the suppression hearing differed on their recollection of when the agents removed Defendant's handcuffs. Agent Henderson clearly had a better vantage point, but the absence of any details in regard to which agent in particular handled the cuffing and uncuffing leaves his testimony less persuasive than it might otherwise have been on that point. Ms. Hammond, who on the whole was a credible witness, recalled that the cuffs remained on Defendant as he walked away from the gas pump and toward the sedan. But her somewhat restricted opportunity to observe the interaction while inside the store and attending to her job-related duties gives the Court pause in regard to relying too heavily on her testimony of what she saw, particularly as the subjects moved further away from the counter where she was standing. In that same vein, Ms. Hammond acknowledged that she did not see the agents remove the handcuffs from Defendant and only "assumed" that they did so while he was in the sedan. On balance, the Court finds Agent Henderson's recollection as to when the agents removed the handcuffs more reliable given his superior vantage point and direct involvement in the interaction. Agent Henderson ...

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