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United States v. Hassanshahi

United States District Court, D. Columbia

November 19, 2015

SHANTIA HASSANSHAHI, also known as Shantia Hassan Shahi, also known as Shahi, also known as Shantia Haas, also known as Sean Haas, and HASSTON, INC., Defendants

Page 76

          For SHANTIA HASSANSHAHI, also known as SHANTIA HASSAN SHAHI, also known as SHAHI, also known as SHANTIA HAAS, also known as SEAN HAAS, Defendant: John Patrick Pierce, THEMIS PLLC, Washington, DC.

         For USA, Plaintiff: Frederick Walton Yette, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Criminal Division, Washington, DC.

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         Denying Defendant's Motion for Reconsideration

         RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.


         Defendant Shantia Hassanshahi is charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. § 1705, and the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. § § 560.203-204, commonly referred to as the United States' trade embargo against Iran.

         In December 2014, the Court denied a motion by Mr. Hassanshahi to suppress certain evidence discovered during a forensic examination of his laptop computer, holding, in relevant part, that discovery of the evidence was sufficiently attenuated from a search of a mysterious telephony database that the Court assumed, for purposes of its analysis and at the Government's suggestion, was unconstitutional. See United States v. Hassanshahi, 75 F.Supp.3d 101 (D.D.C. 2014). Following the Court's decision, Mr. Hassanshahi has argued, both orally before the Court and in rounds of supplemental briefing in response to orders of the Court, that suppression of the evidence is warranted in light of both additional information concerning the database that the Government provided after the Court's ruling and the Second Circuit's recent decision concerning a different government database in

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ACLU v. Clapper, 785 F.3d 787 (2d Cir. 2015).

         The Court construes these arguments as a motion for reconsideration of the Court's denial of Mr. Hassanshahi's motion to suppress. For the reasons that follow, and upon consideration of the briefs submitted by both Mr. Hassanshahi and the Government, the Court denies that motion and affirms its ruling on the motion to suppress.


         The Indictment against Mr. Hassanshahi alleges that, beginning in or around March 2009, Mr. Hassanshahi engaged in a conspiracy to export or cause the exportation of goods and technology from Canada to Iran, as well as related services from the United States to Iran, without first having obtained a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, in violation of federal law. See Indictment ¶ 1, ECF No. 7.

         At trial, the Government seeks to introduce evidence discovered during a forensic examination of Mr. Hassanshahi's laptop computer, which the Government seized from Mr. Hassanshahi in January 2012 upon his arrival from the United States at the Los Angeles International Airport (" LAX" ). The Government's search and seizure of that evidence was the result of an investigation that began at least as early as August 2011.[1] See Hassanshahi, 75 F.Supp.3d at 105-07. In August 2011, Homeland Security Investigations (" HSI" ) received an unsolicited e-mail from a source concerning an Iranian individual named " Sheikhi" who was seeking to procure protection relays for an Iranian power project. See id. at 105. Later the same month, HSI requested a search of a law enforcement database using a telephone number it knew to be associated with Sheikhi. That search returned a single telephone record of one call between the searched telephone number and a California telephone number with an 818 area code that HSI later determined, through its subsequent investigation, was registered to Mr. Hassanshahi. See id. at 105-06. Over the course of the next several months, HSI investigated Mr. Hassanshahi, which ultimately led to the search and seizure of his laptop computer at LAX.

         Mr. Hassanshahi moved to suppress the evidence discovered through the forensic examination of his laptop, asserting, in relevant part, that HSI's search of the law enforcement database constituted an unconstitutional search and that the evidence should be excluded under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. See Def.'s Mot. Suppress at 18-30, ECF No. 28. The Court denied Mr. Hassanshahi's motion, holding, in relevant part, that the exclusionary rule did not require suppressing the evidence as " fruit of the poisonous tree," because discovery of the evidence was sufficiently attenuated from the purportedly unlawful search of the database.[2] See Hassanshahi, 75 F.Supp.3d at 108-18. The Court reached this holding based on limited information concerning the database at issue, because, in its opposition to the motion

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to suppress, the Government refused to provide details concerning the database and instead asked the Court to assume arguendo that the database was unconstitutional. See id. at 109. In its analysis, the Court therefore proceeded on the assumption that the database and HSI's search of the database were unconstitutional and nevertheless concluded that the exclusionary rule did not require suppression. See id. at 108-18. Although the Court was unequivocal in its holding, it also ordered the Government to provide the Court with more information concerning the database. See id. at 115 n.6.

         The Government complied with the Court's order by providing a declaration from Robert Patterson, an Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (" DEA" ), which the Government initially filed ex parte and under seal and later filed publicly in redacted form. See Decl. Robert Patterson (" Patterson Decl." ), ECF No. 49-1 (publicly-filed redacted version). In this declaration, Mr. Patterson explained that the database at issue " consisted of telecommunications metadata obtained from United States telecommunications providers pursuant to administrative subpoenas served upon the service providers under the provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 876." Id. ¶ 4. The referenced statutory provision authorizes the Attorney General to issue administrative subpoenas in " any investigation" relating to his drug enforcement function. See 21 U.S.C. § 876. Mr. Patterson provided further detail concerning the metadata stored in the database:

This metadata related to international telephone calls originating in the United States and calling [REDACTED] designated foreign countries, one of which was Iran, that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities. This metadata consisted exclusively of the initiating telephone number; the receiving telephone number; the date, time, and duration of the call; and the method by which the call was billed. No subscriber information or other personal identifying information was included in this database. No communication content was included in this database.

         Patterson Decl. ¶ 4. Mr. Patterson further stated that the DEA database " could be used to query a telephone number where federal law enforcement officials had a reasonable articulable suspicion that the telephone number at issue was related to an ongoing federal criminal investigation" and that the standard had been met with respect to the search that returned Mr. Hassanshahi's telephone number. Id. ¶ 5. Mr. Patterson also stated that use of this particular database was suspended in September 2013 and that " information is no longer being collected in bulk pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 876." Id. ¶ 6.

         At a status conference before the Court on January 29, 2015 following the filing of Mr. Patterson's redacted declaration, counsel for Mr. Hassanshahi sought permission to renew his motion to suppress based on the new information concerning the DEA database. The Court directed the Government to provide briefing concerning two issues: first, whether information obtained by one law enforcement agency for one purpose may lawfully be shared with another law enforcement agency for another purpose; and second, whether a remedy of suppression existed for a non-constitutional violation of law. The Government submitted a brief on these issues, and Mr. Hassanshahi filed a brief in response, to which the Government filed a reply brief. See Gov't's Response to the Court's Directive from the Jan. 29, 2015 Status Conference (" Gov't's Feb. 25 Brief" ), ECF No. 51; Def.'s Response to Gov't's Filing (" Def.'s Apr. 13 Brief" ), ECF No. 53; Gov't's Reply to Def.'s Response (" Gov't's Apr. 29 Brief" ), ECF No. 58.

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          In May 2015, the Second Circuit decided ACLU v. Clapper, holding that a counterterrorism telephony metadata program maintained by the National Security Agency (" NSA" ), which this Court discussed in its denial of the motion to suppress, exceeded the program's statutory authorization. See ACLU v. Clapper, 785 F.3d 787 (2d Cir. 2015). The parties have also submitted briefs concerning the effect, if any, that the Second Circuit's decision might have on the issues presented in this case. See Def.'s Brief re Effect of ACLU v. Clapper (" Def.'s June 22 Brief" ), ECF No. 68; Gov't's Response to Def.'s Brief (" Gov't's July 10 Brief" ), ECF No. 74; Def.'s Reply (" Def.'s July 29 Brief" ), ECF No. 77.


         " Although the Federal Rules do not specifically provide for motions for reconsideration in criminal cases, the Supreme Court has recognized, in dicta, the utility of such motions." United States v. Ferguson, 574 F.Supp.2d 111, 113 (D.D.C. 2008); see also United States v. Dieter, 429 U.S. 6, 8, 97 S.Ct. 18, 50 L.Ed.2d 8 (1976) (per curiam) (noting " the wisdom of giving district courts the opportunity to promptly correct their own alleged errors" ). Courts in this District have, therefore, entertained motions for reconsideration in criminal cases by importing the standards of review applicable in motions for reconsideration in civil cases. See, e.g., United States v. Trabelsi, Crim. No. 06-89 (RWR), 2015 WL 5175882 at *2 (D.D.C. Sept. 3, 2015); United States v. Slough, 61 F.Supp.3d 103, 107 (D.D.C. 2014); United States v. Cabrera, 699 F.Supp.2d 35, 39 (D.D.C. 2010); United States v. Sunia, 643 F.Supp.2d 51, 60-61 (D.D.C. 2009); United States v. Libby, 429 F.Supp.2d 46, 46-47 (D.D.C. 2006). With respect to motions for reconsideration of final judgments, courts have adopted the standard of review for motions filed under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Slough, 61 F.Supp.3d at 107 n.1 (citing cases). With respect to interlocutory decisions, courts in this District have also adopted the standard from civil cases that reconsideration of an interlocutory decision is available " as justice requires." See Trabelsi, 2015 WL 5175882 at *2; Slough, 61 F.Supp.3d at 107; Sunia, 643 F.Supp.2d at 60-61.

         The Court's denial of Mr. Hassanshahi's motion to suppress was an interlocutory decision, and, therefore, the Court follows the lead of other courts in this District and applies the " as justice requires" standard. " [A]sking 'what justice requires' amounts to determining, within the Court's discretion, whether reconsideration is necessary under the relevant circumstances." Cobell v. Norton, 355 F.Supp.2d 531, 539 (D.D.C. 2005). In making this determination, the Court considers whether it " patently misunderstood a party, has made a decision outside the adversarial issues presented to the Court by the parties, has made an error not of reasoning but of apprehension, or where a controlling or significant change in the law or facts [has occurred] since the submission of the issue to the Court." Singh v. George Washington Univ., 383 F.Supp.2d 99, 101 (D.D.C. 2005) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         The Court is also guided by several generally applicable principles. " 'Motions for reconsideration are committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.'" Trabelsi, 2015 WL 5175882 at *2 (quoting Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Energy, 319 F.Supp.2d 32, 34 (D.D.C. 2004)). Also, " [t]he moving party bears the burden 'to show that reconsideration is appropriate and that harm or injustice would result if reconsideration were denied.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Hemingway, 930 F.Supp.2d 11, 13 (D.D.C. 2013)). Moreover, a motion for reconsideration is " not simply

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an opportunity to reargue facts and theories upon which a court has already ruled." New York v. United States, 880 F.Supp. 37, 38 (D.D.C. 1995); see also Singh, 383 F.Supp.2d at 101 (" [W]here litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again." ).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Hassanshahi and the Government advance a variety of arguments in connection with Mr. Hassanshahi's motion for reconsideration. These arguments can be grouped in two major issues for the Court to consider: first, whether Mr. Hassanshahi may seek suppression of the laptop evidence by challenging the statutory validity of the DEA database, as opposed to its constitutionality; and second, whether the new information disclosed by the Government concerning the database and the Second Circuit's decision in Clapper require the Court to reverse its prior decision and suppress the evidence on constitutional grounds. The Court addresses these issues below.

         A. Mr. Hassanshahi's Statutory Challenge

         In his original motion to suppress the laptop evidence, Mr. Hassanshahi argued that the evidence should be suppressed on constitutional grounds. See Def.'s Mot. Suppress at 18-30. After the Court rejected that argument and denied the motion, the Government disclosed that the DEA obtained the information contained in the database from U.S. telecommunications service providers pursuant to administrative subpoenas that the Government asserts were authorized by 21 U.S.C. § 876. See Patterson Decl. ¶ 4. In light of this disclosure, Mr. Hassanshahi takes the position that the evidence should be suppressed not only on constitutional grounds, but also on statutory grounds, arguing that the DEA's collection and dissemination of the data violated 21 U.S.C. § 876. The Government takes the position, through several distinct arguments, that Mr. Hassanshahi is unable, as a matter of law, to challenge the statutory validity of the database and seek suppression of the evidence as a remedy. The Court addresses the Government's arguments in turn.

         1. Mr. Hassanshahi's Ability To Raise A Statutory Challenge

         The Government argues that Mr. Hassanshahi cannot challenge the statutory validity of the DEA database for two reasons. First, the Government argues that Mr. Hassanshahi cannot challenge the DEA's collection of the metadata contained in the database from telecommunications service providers, because he lacks " standing" to challenge administrative subpoenas directed to third parties.[3] Second, the Government argues that Mr. Hassanshahi cannot challenge the DEA's dissemination of that information to HSI, because it is a longstanding rule that one law enforcement agency may share information it has collected for one purpose with another law

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enforcement agency for a different ...

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