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United States v. Hughes

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

September 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN CICERO HUGHES, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DANA L. CHRISTENSEN, CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court are Defendant John Cicero Hughes's Motion to Suppress Evidence from C&P Examination (Doc. 61) and Motion to Suppress Statements Based on Miranda (Doc. 65). As explained in this Court's Order of September 17, 2019, the Court will withhold judgment until trial regarding Hughes's Motion to Suppress Government's Compilation Exhibit (Doc. 63). (Doc. 72.) The Court held a hearing on the motions on September 23, 2019. Having considered the parties' briefs, supporting exhibits, and the evidence presented at the hearing, the Court denies the motions.

         Background

         The grand jury handed down a 20-count indictment against Hughes on June 28, 2018. (Doc. 2.) Hughes stands charged with one count of Health Care Fraud, seventeen counts of Theft of Government Money, one count of False Statements, and one count of Social Security Disability Insurance Fraud. The government alleges that Hughes misrepresented the severity and scope of his disability in order to unlawfully take government benefits.

         I. Summary of the Federal Agencies Involved

         Hughes, a veteran, receives healthcare from the Veterans Health Administration ("VHA") and benefits through the Veteran Benefits Administration ("VBA"). The VHA and VBA are both organizations under the umbrella of the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"). Hughes's receipt of benefits through the VBA is at the core of the criminal charges he faces. His receipt of healthcare services through the VHA is generally irrelevant to this criminal proceeding, but VHA medical providers were involved in classifying Hughes's level of disability at the direction of the VBA. In early 2018, the VBA downgraded Hughes's disability rating following a compensation and pension ("C&P") examination performed by VHA Family Nurse Practitioner Christine McCutcheon.

         Independent from the VA but also relevant to this case is the VA Office of Inspector General ("OIG"), an oversight agency created by the Inspector General Act of 1978, Pub. Law 95-452, 5 U.S.C. App. § 3. The OIG investigates fraud and waste within the VA, and its agents have the "duty and responsibility ... to conduct, supervise, or coordinate ... activities carried out or financed by [the VA] for the purpose of promoting economy and efficiency in the administration of, or preventing and detecting fraud and abuse in, its programs and operations ...." 5 U.S.C. App. 3 § 4(a)(4). In Hughes's case, the OIG conducted the criminal investigation, led by investigating agent David Huntoon, that led to the indictment in this case. Agent Huntoon shared information gathered during the criminal investigation with the VBA, triggering its review of Hughes's appropriate disability classification.

         II. Hughes's Receipt of Benefits and the Agencies' Investigations

         In 2009, Hughes was rated as 100% disabled by VBA on the basis of his diagnosed multiple sclerosis. During the hearing on the motions to suppress, Agent Huntoon testified that at some point prior to October 2017, he received information that Hughes had been seen riding a motorcycle, which Huntoon viewed as inconsistent with the VBA's determination that his disability included the loss of use of both feet. The OIG opened a criminal investigation. It also shared information with the VBA, which in turn reviewed Hughes's file and discovered a treatment note from 2013 describing Hughes carrying his wheelchair in one hand and his cane in the other as he walked down the stairs of a VHA building.

         In light of this evidence, the VBA began its own investigation into Hughes's level of disability for the purpose of ensuring that Hughes was receiving the appropriate level of benefits. In collaboration with the OIG, [1] the VBA scheduled a C&P exam for October 23, 2017. Agent Huntoon contacted the VHA provider who would conduct the examination, Nurse Practitioner McCutcheon, and requested her consent to record the examination. McCutcheon gave her consent, and Huntoon and OIG investigating agent Marcus Munn made arrangements to monitor and create a video and audio recording of the C&P exam.

         Hughes canceled the exam and rescheduled it for November 15, 2017. However, he did not attend the rescheduled exam. On December 20, 2017, the VBA sent a letter to Hughes proposing that Hughes's disability rating from 100% to 70%, corresponding to a proposed reduction in monthly benefits from $7, 702.12 to $1, 566.48. (Doc. 67-3.) The VBA explained that the reduction was attributable, in part, to Hughes's failure to attend the scheduled C&P exam. It also notified Hughes of his right to appeal the proposed revision of Hughes's disability rating. In response, Hughes sent a letter contesting the revision and stating that he had rescheduled his C&P exam for January 23, 2018.

         Hughes attended the January 23, 2018 C&P exam. McCutcheon performed the exam, following the VBA's check-box disability benefits questionnaire specific to multiple sclerosis.[2] Agents Huntoon and Munn recorded the exam via audio and video, and they also watched the exam in real time. At issue here is whether the government may introduce evidence from the exam at trial.

         Discussion

         Hughes seeks suppression of evidence collected during the January 23, 2018 C&P Exam under two theories. First, he argues that the warrantless recording of the exam was an unconstitutional search, and the audio and video recordings therefore must be suppressed. Second, he contends that suppression of his statements made in response to McCutcheon's questions is warranted because: (1) he did not receive a Miranda warning; and (2) his statements were made involuntarily.

         I. Motion to Suppress Evidence from C&P Examination (Doc. 61)

         Hughes seeks suppression of "documentation, recordings, observations, and conclusions" from the January 23, 2018 C&P exam. (Doc. 62 at 2.) He argues that Agents Huntoon and Munn violated his Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure by observing and recording the C&P exam. Hughes's argument falls under two general lines of reasoning: (1) the government did not comply with applicable regulations governing the sharing of veterans' personal health information; and (2) the government needed a warrant ...


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