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United States v. Nguyen

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 18, 2018

TAI TAN NGUYEN, Defendant.


          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         Tai Nguyen is charged with bulk cash smuggling, failure to file a currency report, and knowingly making false statements to government investigators. Ahead of his trial, Mr. Nguyen moved to suppress the statements he made to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agents during two interviews conducted in October 2016. Because these interviews were not custodial interrogations, and because his statements were made voluntarily, the Court denies the Defendant's motion.


         The Government contends that Mr. Nguyen misused his position as an ICE Assistant Attaché to conceal, transport, and avoid reporting over $80, 000 in cash in 2016. Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 2, ECF No. 7. Stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok at the time, Mr. Nguyen allegedly transported the money from Hawaii to Thailand and claimed diplomatic immunity to evade certain Bank Secrecy Act reporting requirements. Id.; Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 2, ECF No. 8. Mr. Nguyen is also accused of knowingly making false statements to government agents in the subsequent investigation of the incident. See Indictment 2, ECF No. 1.

         Special Agents Kendra Wynn and Michael Keck and Unit Chief Craig Larrabee worked in ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”) in 2016. They interviewed Mr. Nguyen twice. Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 2. The first interview was conducted on October 27, 2016, at two locations in the District of Columbia - ICE headquarters and OPR's building in L'Enfant Plaza. Id. Mr. Nguyen requested the second interview. It was held the next day at the OPR building. Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 2. Before each interview began, the ICE agents provided Mr. Nguyen several warnings and notices, including “a Beckwith Warning, Disclosure Warning, General Notice, and a Title 18 United States Code § 1001 Advisement.” Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 2. Mr. Nguyen signed and dated each of the warnings and notices he received. Id. at 3.

         Mr. Nguyen argues that these warnings were insufficient, as the interviews were “custodial in nature” and he was “interrogated.” Id. (citing Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). Therefore, because the ICE agents failed “to advise Mr. Nguyen of the full panoply of his Miranda rights - especially his right to have counsel present during the interviews - [they] denied him his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.” Id. at 3-4.

         Mr. Nguyen also claims that the ICE agents “intimated” him “by using his position as an [ICE] ‘employee' against him to coerce him into signing the waiver forms.” Id. at 4. Because of this coercion, “his alleged waiver of his constitutional protections . . . was neither voluntary nor made with a full awareness” of the nature and scope of these protections. Id. Accordingly, the Defendant believes that his statements during the interviews “must be excluded from the government's case-in-chief at trial.” Id. The Government disagrees, arguing that Miranda does not apply here, as Mr. Nguyen's “voluntary interview” was “not remotely custodial.” Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 3.

         The parties submitted briefs presenting their arguments, which they summarized at a Motions Hearing. During the hearing, Agent Keck testified for the Government. As further detailed below, Agent Keck testified about the location, duration, and circumstances of the two interviews, describing his impressions of the questioning and Mr. Nguyen's demeanor.[1] Mr. Nguyen did not present any evidence or witnesses at the hearing.


         The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” U.S. Const. amend. V. At trial, the Government “may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure [this] privilege against self-incrimination.” Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444. A custodial interrogation means “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” Id. The procedural safeguards required include warning the interviewee that “he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.” Id.

         The first step in a Miranda inquiry is to determine whether the questioning at issue was custodial. Custody is “a term of art that specifies circumstances that are thought generally to present a serious danger of coercion.” Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499, 508-09 (2012). This danger exists when, “in light of the objective circumstances of the interrogation, a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.” Id. at 509 (cleaned up). To evaluate the interviewee's perceived “freedom of movement, ” the Court considers “the location of the questioning, its duration, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning.” Id. (cleaned up).

         Finding that an objective defendant would not feel free to terminate the interview does not end the inquiry, as “[n]ot all restraints on freedom of movement amount to custody for purposes of Miranda.” Id. Rather, the Court must ask the “additional question [of] whether the relevant environment presents the same inherently coercive pressures as the type of station house questioning at issue in Miranda.” Id. In other words, the “freedom-of-movement test identifies only a necessary and not a sufficient condition” for custody. Id. (citation omitted).


         Miranda does not require that the Court exclude Mr. Nguyen's statements from his upcoming trial. His interviews were non-custodial. Moreover, he received multiple verbal and written warnings making it clear that answers to the agents' questions were optional. These warnings, combined with his experience as a law ...

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