United States v. Steven Deason (11th Cir. July 2020)

Miranda Rights/Custody – An individual is not in custody if he is advised by police that he is not under arrest and free to leave at any time, he acknowledges and understands the police’s statements, and he insists on continuing the interview.

Sufficiency of the Evidence/Obscene Material – Witness testimony describing the contents of videos that are allegedly obscene, along with screenshots of the videos that corroborate the testimony, is a sufficient substitute to introducing the videos themselves.

Steven Deason was convicted of attempted online enticement of a minor under 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) and six counts of attempted transfer of obscene matter to a minor under 18 U.S.C. § 1470. After Deason had numerous online interactions with someone he believed was an underage girl, officers executed a search warrant for Deason’s cell phone. During the search, Deason agreed to talk to the officers. Deason was never given Miranda warnings, but the officers told Deason “that he was not under arrest, that he was not in custody, and that they would leave at any time he told them to go.” During the interview, Deason’s wife advised him to stop talking. After a brief discussion with his wife, Deason approached the officers and continued the interview.

Deason moved to suppress a recording of the interview but was denied. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 144 months’ imprisonment. Deason appealed, arguing that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress. He also argued that there was insufficient evidence for one of his § 1470 convictions and that all of his § 1470 convictions were insufficiently specific. Deason also challenged the admissibility of evidence, the propriety of his § 1470 charges, and the jury instructions.

The Court affirmed Deason’s convictions, holding “that Deason was not in custody at any point during” his talk with the officers because he was told that he was not under arrest and free to leave at any time. The Court noted that Deason even acknowledged to officers that he understood their statements. The Court further noted that Deason’s talk with the officers was voluntary because, after Deason’s wife arrived and instructed him to terminate the interview, he “insisted” on continuing the conversation and invited them back into his home to continue. Even though officers approached Deason’s house with weapons drawn and Deason’s daughter was placed in a police vehicle during his interview, Deason’s interview was voluntary.

The Court also held that the government does not need to introduce “all the matter alleged to be obscene” to prove a violation under § 1470. Instead, the Court held that testimony describing the videos, along with screenshots taken from the videos that support the testimony, was sufficient to support Deason’s conviction.

The Court also held that Deason waived, consented to, or invited any error he alleged regarding the six § 1470 charges in his indictment. Deason had challenged the six charges in the government’s original indictment. However, once the government secured a superseding indictment, “Deason withdrew his motion.” Therefore, the Court held that “if there were any problems with the specificity of the superseding indictment, Deason waived or invited the error, or he at least consented to it.”

The Court also held that there was no error in the admission of video screenshots and testimony describing the videos because Deason’s substantial rights were not affected. The Court noted that, had Deason objected to their admission during trial, “the government would have simply put the three videos themselves into evidence.”

The Court also held that Deason’s substantial rights were not affected by the six § 1470 charges because Deason failed to show that “the jury could have been less than unanimous on at least one image or linked video underlying each of the six § 1470 counts. The Court held that, while it is possible that a jury might not have unanimously found that all of the images in each count were obscene, “Deason offers not a single argument as to how a reasonable juror court conclude that any of those images are not obscene.” The Court noted that, “under his theory,” Deason should have been charged with seventy § 1470 counts, one for each alleged obscene material.

The Court also held Deason failed to show that the given jury instructions affected his substantial rights.

Appeal from the Middle District of Georgia

Opinion by E. Carnes, joined by Branch and Tjoflat

Click here to read the opinion.

 


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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