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Allegations of manipulating faith during questioning did not rise to level of coercive police tactics

Facts

In 2019 and 2020, law enforcement learned that two IP addresses associated with the Denison Church of the Nazarene and its pastor, David Pettigrew, uploaded images of child pornography online. After acquiring search warrants for Denison Church and Pettigrew’s home, officers found a Maxtor hard drive in Pettigrew’s office at the church. The hard drive contained “dozens and dozens of videos” that captured children, in various stages of undress, taking baths in the church offices. The footage also captured Pettigrew and another man setting up cameras before the children came in, escorting them in, instructing them how to bathe in front of the cameras so the cameras would capture them, and then taking the cameras down. The church treasurer identified the second man as Chad Michael Rider.

Two weeks later, officers executed a search warrant at Rider’s residence. After locating Rider, Detective Joseph Adcock and Agent Bruce Donnet escorted Rider to a police car to speak with him. Rider was read his Miranda rights and admitted to placing cameras at Pettigrew’s request on two occasions. Rider claimed he felt forced to set up the cameras because Pettigrew had obtained nude photos of Rider’s wife, Pettigrew was his pastor, and because Rider believed there was nothing malicious—nothing sexual about it. Throughout the conversation, Rider maintained that he did not know Pettigrew intended to film the children naked and believed the equipment captured only audio. Rider was arrested later that day.

The police later discovered additional videos on the Maxtor hard drive that were filmed at different locations. These included the so-called “Neighbor Videos” and “Home Bathroom Videos.” The Neighbor Videos were filmed at Rider’s neighbor’s house and consisted of three consecutive recordings of Rider’s teenage neighbor (“Victim 1”) using the restroom. The footage captured Victim 1 entering her private home bathroom and looking at herself in the mirror; standing up from the toilet while nude from the waist down; and washing her hands prior to leaving the bathroom. The video included footage of Victim 1’s genitals. The Home Bathroom Videos were filmed in Rider’s home, took place over several days, and captured a different minor (“Victim 2”). Victim 2 was friends with Rider’s children, and Rider was Victim 2’s legal guardian when he filmed her. The Home Bathroom Videos captured Victim 2 on multiple occasions as she undresses, examines her body, enters the shower, exits the shower, uses a towel to dry off all of her body, and dresses.

Rider was indicted on three counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2251 (a) and (e), which prohibit the sexual exploitation of minors, or attempted exploitation of children, to produce child pornography. Before trial, Rider moved to suppress his conversation with Detective Adcock and Agent Donnet on the basis that his statements were involuntary. He argued that the officers violated his Fifth Amendment right against self- incrimination by failing to secure the voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights and by disregarding his request for counsel. Rider also claimed the officers violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because Donnet repeatedly preyed upon Rider’s substantial faith to coerce Rider into confessing.

After holding a hearing, the magistrate judge recommended rejecting Rider’s Fifth Amendment claim because he was not in a custodial interrogation. Alternatively, the magistrate judge found that Rider received his Miranda warnings, implicitly waived his rights by voluntarily speaking with the officers, and did not invoke his right to counsel. The district court overruled Rider’s objections and accepted the magistrate judge’s report and recommendations on the day of trial.

Rider was convicted of three counts of producing or attempting to produce child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and was sentenced to 720 months’ imprisonment. The 5th affirmed.

Analysis

Rider claims his statements were involuntary and that the officers manipulated him into believing he could reunite with his family if he cooperated. He also contends Donnet violated his due process rights by referencing their shared Christian faith, which exploited the “human need to disclose” one’s “flawed acts or thoughts.”

A. Not in custody

The Fifth Amendment forbids law enforcement from using statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination. In Miranda, the Supreme Court held that law enforcement officials must inform a suspect in custody of his right to remain silent, that any statement he makes may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to retained or appointed counsel.

Thus, the threshold question is whether a suspect was in custody. Because we agree with the district court that Rider was not in custody when he made the inculpatory statements, we do not reach the waiver of those rights.

A suspect is “in custody” when they are placed under formal arrest or when a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation to constitute a restraint on freedom of movement of the degree which the law associates with formal arrest. See Courtney.

In Rider’s case, there is no indication that the questioning took place in a context where respondent’s freedom to depart was restricted in any way. Although the conversation lasted for over one and a half hours, Rider was interviewed in an unlocked police car and his counsel admitted at oral argument that Rider was free to leave the police vehicle. Furthermore, Rider was made comfortable and kept in view of his family members throughout the conversation. The magistrate judge described the interaction as conversational and, at one point and without objection from Adcock or Donnet, Rider opened the car door and asked officers to be careful about searching his truck so as not to scratch the hitch.

Under these facts, we see no error in the district court’s determination that a reasonable person would not have understood the situation to constitute a restraint on freedom of movement equivalent to formal arrest. See Gonzalez (defendant not in custody when he sat in front seat, was interviewed on his property within 40 feet of his home, and could see his family) and Wright (defendant not “in custody” when he was told he was free to leave, was not physically restrained, interrogation took place close to the home, in a car subject to public scrutiny, and transcript highlights that the conversation was as much an opportunity taken by Wright to tell his story to the officers as it was an opportunity taken by the officers to get information from Wright.)

Therefore, Rider was not “in custody” and the district court correctly determined there was no violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. (Even if Rider was in custody, we agree that the officers issued his Miranda rights and that Rider either waived or failed to invoke his rights.)

B. Coercion

Nor was Rider subject to the type of coercion prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment. As set out in SCOTUS Chavez v. Martinez, 538 US 760 (2003), the Fourteenth Amendment protects a suspect’s right to be free from coercive questioning and prohibits convictions based on evidence obtained by methods that are so brutal and so offensive to human dignity that they shock the conscience and violate the Due Process Clause. To violate the Due Process Clause, law enforcement must use a substantial element of coercive conduct that is intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest. This demanding standard applies to police torture or other abuse.

Although Rider was interviewed in a police vehicle, the car was not locked and was kept at a comfortable temperature. His counsel admitted he could exit the vehicle at any time. Rider’s health and safety was not threatened, nor was he verbally abused. To the contrary, the record indicates the interaction remained conversational. Even if Rider is correct that Donnet manipulated Rider’s faith to suggest forgiveness from God if Rider confessed, SCOTUS has held that appeals to the conscience do not constitute coercive police tactics. See SCOTUS Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298 (1985) and Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010). Simply put, Rider can point to no behavior that violates the decencies of civilized conduct and meets Chavez’s high standard.

The district court did not err in denying Rider’s motion to suppress on this basis.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/23/23-40144-CR0.pdf