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United States v. Constantin

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

November 7, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CRISTIAN CONSTANTIN, et al.

          RULING

          SHELLY D. DICK CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion to Suppress[1] filed by Defendant, Cristian Constantin (“Constantin”). The motion is opposed.[2] This Court held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion on October 30, 2019.[3] For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Constantin's Motion shall be DENIED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On March 10, 2019, acting on a tip from the United States Secret Service about a suspected access device fraud scheme, deputies with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office (EBRSO) located the Defendant, Christian Constantin (“Constantin”) at a Capital One Bank on Siegen Lane in Baton Rouge. Constantin was accompanied by a woman who was carrying a bag containing more than one hundred re-encoded credit cards and various forms of identification, some bearing Constantin's photograph but identifying him as William Miclescu.[4] Constantin was arrested and booked into EBR Parish Prison.

         Four days later, on March 14, 2019, Constantin was transported from Parish Prison to the EBRSO Financial Crimes Division to be interviewed by Corporal Leigh Rice (“Corporal Rice”) about his involvement in the alleged fraud scheme. Before the interview began, Corporal Rice presented Constantin with a Miranda rights waiver form, which he signed after reviewing it with her. During the subsequent interview, Constantin made statements admitting to criminal conduct - the conduct ultimately charged in the Indictment out of which this case arises.[5]

         Constantin now moves to have his statements suppressed, arguing that he did not knowingly waive his Miranda rights. Constantin's native language is Romanian, and although he is able to “speak a passable amount of English, ”[6] the defense argues that Constantin's interview with Corporal Rice was marked by “breakdowns in communication, ”[7] including times when he “asks questions that demonstrate his lack of English comprehension”[8] or “responds to open-ended questions with ‘yes.'”[9]Moreover, Constantin asserts that he was a member of the gypsy social class in Romania and contends that the fact that he “is 19, has no degree, and has no familiarity with the criminal justice system”[10] weighs against a finding that his waiver was knowing.

         The Government denies that Constantin's limited English proficiency was a barrier to a knowing waiver of his Miranda rights, arguing that “[m]erely because this defendant experienced difficulty with English did not mean that he did not understand his Miranda warning.”[11] The Government argues that Constantin “was clear when he informed the deputy that he understood [his] rights.”[12]

         II. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A defendant's waiver of his Miranda rights is effective only if knowing and voluntary.[13] The Government bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Constantin knowingly and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights.[14] The validity of a Miranda waiver is assessed by considering the totality of the circumstances.[15] The United States Supreme Court has further described the inquiry into the validity of a waiver as follows:

The inquiry whether a valid waiver has occurred has two distinct dimensions. First, the relinquishment of the right must have been voluntary in the sense that it was the product of a free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception. Second, the waiver must have been made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it. Only if the ‘totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation' reveal both an uncoerced choice and the requisite level of comprehension may a court properly conclude that the Miranda rights have been waived.[16]

         The voluntariness of Constantin's waiver - or, put another way, the absence of intimidation, coercion, or deception on the part of Corporal Rice - is not the focus of the instant Motion. The video of Constantin's interview with Corporal Rice is in evidence and has been fully reviewed by the Court. At the suppression hearing, the Government pointed out Corporal Rice's calm tone of voice and the amount of time she took explaining the Miranda waiver form to Constantin; the defense agreed that the Corporal “did her best and tried” and agreed that the taped interview did not reveal “a lot of guile” on Corporal Rice's part. After hearing testimony and watching portions of the taped interview in court, the Court found there was no doubt that Corporal Rice behaved in a “very mannerly and professional way” throughout her interaction with Constantin. Because there is no evidence of intimidation or coercion, the Court finds that, to the extent that voluntariness was even disputed, the Government carried its burden of proving that Constantin's Miranda waiver was voluntary under the totality of the circumstances.

         The crux of the dispute is the knowingness of Constantin's waiver - that is, whether in light of what even the Government called his “broken English, ” Constantin validly waived his Miranda rights when they were presented and explained to him in English, accompanied by an English-language Miranda waiver form. In support of its contention that Constantin's waiver was knowing, the Government called two witnesses and introduced two exhibits.

         The Government's first witness, Captain Richard St. Pierre (“Captain St. Pierre”), testified that he works with the EBRSO Financial Crimes Division and that on March 10, 2019, he met with Constantin at EBRSO headquarters and advised him of his Miranda rights. Captain St. Pierre then transported Constantin to EBR Parish Prison. Captain St. Pierre noted that during the ride, Constantin inquired about the female individual who was arrested with him (in fact, Constantin's wife) and “alluded” to the fact that she was a juvenile. Captain St. Pierre testified that Constantin spoke with “broken English” and that he had to ask Constantin to repeat himself several times to understand him. Asked by the Government if Constantin appeared to understand what was said to him, Captain St. Pierre stated, “it appeared that he did at that point.” On cross-examination, Captain St. Pierre reiterated that Constantin's English was “very broken” and that he had trouble understanding him. He suggested that Constantin perhaps “portrayed” different levels of comprehension in different situations, noting that when they were in Captain St. Pierre's vehicle, he seemed to suddenly understand better when he realized that he was being transported to Parish Prison.

         To the Court, the fact that Constantin was able to express to Captain St. Pierre that he was concerned about his wife and that his wife was a juvenile (which resulted in EBRSO choosing not to book her into Parish Prison) is evidence of Constantin's ability to communicate in English. Additionally, Captain St. Pierre testified that he overheard a conversation between Constantin and a nurse at Parish Prison, where Constantin told the nurse about how he became involved in the access device fraud scheme, including how he was “picked up” by a Mexican individual at a gas station in Florida. Of course, although they are evidence of his English ability, Constantin's conversations with Captain St. Pierre and the prison nurse do not prove that he knowingly waived Miranda. But these instances of spontaneous conversation do contribute to the Court's perception of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the waiver - specifically, to the Court's perception that Constantin was reasonably comfortable communicating in English.

         The Government's next witness was Corporal Leigh Rice. She testified that she advised Constantin of his Miranda rights in the EBRSO interview room on March 14, 2019, and she identified the Government's Exhibit 1 as the “Your Rights” form that she completed with Constantin. The use of this form is an important fact. In cases where defendants challenge the validity of their waiver of Miranda, the Fifth Circuit has counseled that the presentation of rights in written form weighs in favor of a valid waiver. For example, in United States v. Collins, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a defendant was effectively informed of his Miranda rights when “the agents gave him a written waiver-of-rights form which detailed these rights”[17] and an agent testified that the defendant appeared to read and understand the form. Similarly, in United States v. Broussard, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding of a valid waiver on the basis that “[the defendant] was immediately informed of his Miranda rights in Spanish, asked after each warning whether he understood, and given an opportunity to read a Spanish Miranda warning card.”[18]

         Collins and Broussard are distinguishable from the instant case in an important way - the defendants therein each reviewed a Miranda form that was printed in their native language. Constantin was given an English-language form. Moreover, it cannot be overlooked that the Fifth Circuit has indicated a preference for the use of a defendant's native language during the Miranda process. In United States v. Garcia Abrego, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding of a valid waiver where “the law enforcement officers who interviewed [the Spanish-speaking defendant] read him his Miranda rights in Spanish and that he stated to them that he understood each of these rights.”[19] Likewise, in United States v. Marin Gutierrez, the Fifth Circuit cited the fact that “[the defendant] was read Miranda warnings in Spanish, a language in which she is fluent”[20] as evidence tending to show that her waiver was valid.

         However, the preference for administering Miranda rights in the defendant's native language is just that - a preference, not a requirement. As the Government points out in its Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Suppress, other courts have held that even defendants with poor or “broken” English can knowingly waive Miranda after being Mirandized in English.[21] Obviously, the preference for the use of the defendant's native language arises because it increases the likelihood that the accused understands his or her rights. But the fact that Constantin was Mirandized in English does not compel the conclusion that he did not understand his rights. In fact, the Court notes that when Corporal Rice asks Constantin to read the English-language form out loud, the video shows him reading it out loud, quietly, but seemingly with relative ease.

         Defense counsel's cross-examination of Corporal Rice involved a detailed review of the Government's Exhibit 2, the video of her interview with Constantin. The Government, which bears the burden of proving that Constantin knowingly waived his Miranda rights, posits that the video is its strongest evidence of a knowing waiver. In its closing argument, the Government submitted that “the video says it all.” The Court agrees that the video is the most probative and most direct evidence of the circumstances surrounding Constantin's Miranda waiver. That is not to say that the video offers a clear answer to the question of whether Constantin's waiver was knowing. In fact, the video paints a somewhat conflicting picture of Constantin's ability to understand English.

         At times, the exchange between Constantin and Corporal Rice is so labored or nonsensical that it calls into question whether Constantin has even a rudimentary understanding of the situation, let alone a “full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.”[22] For example:

CORPORAL RICE: So, at any point, you don't wanna answer any questions, you tell me I'm done, I don't wanna answer any more questions. That's what that means, okay? So look over that for me and I need your initials on each line.
CONSTANTIN: [looking at form] That means I answer, when I . . .?
CORPORAL RICE: You don't have to. You have the right to remain silent, you don't have to answer questions, or yes, you can answer questions.
CONSTANTIN: If I put initial, what does mean?
CORPORAL RICE: That means you understand what that means.
CONSTANTIN: I want to answer. . .
CORPORAL RICE: If you want to, ...

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