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United States v. Palms

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

August 16, 2019




         Now before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Bill of Particulars and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 14) and Defendant's Motion to Revoke Detention Order and Request for Release on Conditions (Dkt. # 15). Defendant argues that the indictment does not provide sufficient notice concerning the underlying conduct for counts two and three, and he requests a bill of particulars providing him some guidance as to the factual basis for these charges. Dkt. # 14. Defendant also requests that the magistrate judge's detention order be revoked, and he argues that there are conditions of release that will reasonably assure his appearance and protect the safety of other persons. Dkt. # 15. Defendant requests a hearing on his motion for review of the detention order. Dkt. # 30. The Court has reviewed the parties' briefing and the transcripts of the hearings before the magistrate judge, and finds that a hearing on defendant's motion is unnecessary.


         On June 6, 2019, a grand jury returned an indictment (Dkt. # 2) charging defendant with sex trafficking by means of force, fraud, or coercion in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591 (count one), obstruction or attempted obstruction of enforcement of § 1591 (count two), and retaliation against a witness, victim, or informant (count three). The events giving rise to count two allegedly occurred between November 20, 2018 and January 9, 2019, and count three is based on an incident that occurred on January 9, 2019. Defendant was arrested on June 24, 2019, and he made his initial appearance on the same day. Counsel was appointed to represent defendant, and defendant pled not guilty to the charges in the indictment. Dkt. # 7. Plaintiff filed a motion to detain defendant pending trial (Dkt. # 5), and a detention hearing was set for June 26, 2019.

         At the detention hearing, plaintiff called Tulsa Police Department (TPD) Officer Justin Oxford to testify concerning the facts giving rise to defendant's arrest. Dkt. # 24, at 4. Oxford testified that TPD officers checked a website called “Cityxguide” for advertisements concerning the solicitation of commercial sex acts. Id. at 5. The officers particularly focused on cases in which the person posting the advertisement appeared to be a minor, because TPD was working to locate juveniles who could be victims of human trafficking. Id. On November 20, 2018, Oxford responded to an advertisement and set up a “date” with a woman later identified as M.W., and he arranged to meet her at the Peoria Inn in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Id. at 6. Oxford arrived at the Peoria Inn and noticed a black male in a vehicle watching Oxford as he approached M.W.'s room, and the black male was later identified as Ramar Palms. Id. Oxford advised M.W. that she was under arrest after she agreed to perform a commercial sex act, and he notified his arrest team to apprehend Palms as well. Id. at 7. Oxford searched the hotel room, and he found an identification card for Palms and a .380 caliber handgun. Id. Oxford confiscated M.W.'s cell phone, and numerous messages between M.W. and Palms were found on the phone. Id. The arrest team found some marijuana in Palms' vehicle, as well as contact information for past clients. Id. at 8.

         M.W. told Oxford that she met Palms while she was working as a bartender and they started dating. Id. at 9. Palms later told M.W. that he was a pimp and that she was going to work for him. Id. M.W. claimed that Palms wanted her to go on at least five “dates” every night and that he would physically abuse her if she failed to go on enough dates. Id. Palms and M.W. were married six days after the prostitution sting, and M.W. claims that Palms forced her to marry him to create a spousal privilege that would prevent her from testifying against him. Id. at 10. On December 7, 2018, defendant was charged in state court with procuring for prostitution and unlawful possession of a controlled drug. Dkt. # 15, at 4.

         On January 9, 2019, a physical altercation occurred involving M.W. and Palms, and the facts concerning the incident are disputed by the parties. M.W. told Oxford that she went to the Market Pub in Tulsa, and she ran into Palms with some other women. Id. at 11. A verbal altercation started and Palms allegedly dragged her out of the bar and threw her on the ground. Id. Palms allegedly said that he knew that M.W. was working with the police and that he was going to kill her. Id. Palms attempted to drag M.W. into a car, but the altercation was broken up when some people came out of the bar. Id. Oxford met with M.W. after the incident, and she had sustained physical injuries consistent with the incident she described. Palms claims that M.W. went to the Market Pub and she knew that he would be there. Dkt. # 15, at 3. He states that M.W. became upset that he was with other women and a confrontation occurred in the parking lot. Id. at 4. He claims that they subsequently “parted ways” and he denies that he threatened or physically harmed M.W. Id. On January 11, 2018, the Tulsa County district attorney brought additional charges of intimidation of a witness, assault and battery, robbery, kidnapping, and threatening an act of violence against Palms based on the January 9, 2018 incident. Dkt. # 15, at 5.

         Oxford set up an appointment for M.W. to visit the Family Safety Center and obtained a domestic violence report, and he had 72 hours after receiving the report to arrest Palms. Dkt. # 24, at 12. Oxford had an informant who advised Oxford that Palms was staying at the Shadow Mountain Apartments in Tulsa, and he went to the apartments to set up surveillance. Id. However, the informant later called Oxford and told him that Palms had gone to Louisiana. Id. M.W. had previously traveled to Louisiana with Palms, and the information appeared to be credible. Id. at 12-13. On June 13 or 14, 2019, the district attorney's office notified Oxford that M.W. had received a threat from an unidentified female, and the person told M.W. “everything would be all right” as long as she did not testify against Palms. Id. at 13.

         On cross examination at the detention hearing, Palms' attorney asked Oxford if he was able to gather any evidence that would corroborate M.W.'s account of the January 9, 2019 incident, but Oxford was not able to locate any witnesses who were present or surveillance footage from the bar. Id. at 16. Oxford later received affidavits from two witnesses who were allegedly present, and the affidavits were provided as part of Palms' defense at a preliminary hearing in state court. Id. at 17. Hannah McDonnell claims that she was present for the January 9, 2019 altercation between M.W. and Palms, and McDonnell's friend, Sasha Hawkins, was also present. Dkt. # 15-4; Dkt. # 15-5. Both women state that they were with Palms at the bar, and a woman claiming to be Palms' wife initiated a confrontation with Palms. Id. M.W. also accosted McDonnell, and Palms and M.W. walked out to the parking lot. Id. McDonnell and Hawkins went out to the parking lot, but their statements somewhat diverge at this point. McDonnell states that she heard a noise coming from the parking lot, and when she went out to the parking lot she found M.W. in a fetal position near the tire of a vehicle. Dkt. # 15-4. Palms yelled at M.W. and told Hawkins to take M.W.'s purse. Id. Palms said that M.W. had a gun in her purse, but McDonell denies that Palms physically harmed M.W. Hawkins states she followed Palms and M.W. out of the bar, but she did not initially hear any yelling. Dkt. # 15-5. Palms yelled that M.W. had a gun, and Hawkins states that she observed a gun in M.W.'s right jacket pocket. Id. Hawkins claims that Palms shoved M.W., but Palms did not accuse M.W. of working with the police or otherwise threaten her. Id. Oxford testified that the affidavits did not detract from his assessment of M.W.'s credibility, because the affidavits were provided by a defense attorney for Palms and the witnesses did not voluntarily come to the police to make the statements. Dkt. # 24, at 20.

         Oxford testified that he was aware that M.W. had been involved in prostitution before she met Palms and that Palms had not previously been arrested in connection with pandering or prostitution. Id. at 24-25. Oxford acknowledged that he did not have any independent evidence to corroborate M.W.'s claims that Palms physically abused her prior to January 9, 2019 or that Palms made her go on a certain number of “dates” every evening. Id. at 25-28. Oxford also did not attempt to gather evidence to support the confidential informant's claim that Palms had gone to Louisiana after the January 9, 2019 incident. Id. at 30. On re-direct examination, Oxford testified that he clearly observed that M.W. had serious physical injuries after the January 9, 2019 incident and that her firearm has not been seen since that date. Id. at 36.

         Defendant's mother, Natalie Palms, testified at the detention hearing, and she stated that she was not aware of defendant leaving for Louisiana in the past three months. Id. at 42. She testified that Palms had a prior criminal matter in state court and he always attended his court hearings. Id. at 43. She was not aware of any prior actions by defendant that would suggest that he was a violent person or that he would engage in domestic violence. Id. at 43-44. On cross examination, she testified that defendant does not have a job and he does not have a history of stable employment, and she is not generally aware of his location. Id. at 45. However, defendant does answer his phone whenever she calls. Id.

         Defense counsel represented that defendant was on bond as to the pending state court charges at the time of the detention hearing, but that he had been detained from February 4 to March 31, 2019 on the state charges. Id. at 48. Defendant was released on bond after the kidnapping and threats of act of violence charges were dismissed by the state court and his bond was reduced. Id. Defense counsel has provided transcripts of two preliminary hearings in state court at which M.W. testified, and he argues that there are significant inconsistencies in her testimony that call her credibility into question. Dkt. # 15-1; Dkt. # 15-2. Defense counsel advised the magistrate judge that defendant could live with Kristian Shepherd, the mother of one of his children, while this case is pending, but the magistrate judge noted that the pretrial services report showed that defendant could not recall his address for the two years prior to the date of the detention hearing. Dkt. # 24, at 51.

         Plaintiff's counsel argued that this case involves violence against a potential victim of sex trafficking and defendant faces a statutory mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years as to count one. Id. at 53. He asked the magistrate judge to consider the risk of harm to the victim if defendant were released pending trial and that defendant was on a deferred sentence on state charges when he was arrested in November 2018. Id. at 55-56. There is also evidence that defendant may have fled to Louisiana in January 2019, and the fact that he allegedly committed the offenses charged in this case while on deferred sentencing suggests that conditions of release are likely to be ineffective. Id. at 56. Defense counsel argues that defendant has a history of making his court appearances on the state court charges and he has been on bond since March 31, 2019 without incident. Id. at 57-58. He claims that M.W. initiated the January 9, 2019 incident and there is no evidence that defendant has actively sought out M.W. to cause her harm. Id. at 60. Defendant's primary argument against pretrial detention is that M.W. is an unreliable witness with an incentive to shift blame from herself to defendant, and the evidence that defendant committed a federal crime is based solely on M.W.'s misleading statements to Oxford. Id. at 65. The magistrate judge took the matter under advisement and reviewed the transcripts of the state court preliminary hearings before issuing a ruling as to pretrial detention.

         On June 27, 2019, the magistrate judge held a hearing and granted plaintiff's motion to detain defendant pending trial. Dkt. # 12. The magistrate judge noted that she had considered all of the testimony offered at the detention hearing, as well as the affidavits of McDonnell and Hawkins and the transcripts of the state court preliminary hearings. Dkt. # 27, at 3. Defendant does not have a substantial criminal history, but he was serving a deferred sentence for possession of illegal drugs when he was arrested in November 2018. Id. The magistrate judge acknowledged that there were credibility issues concerning M.W., and this called into question the weight of the evidence as to the charged offenses. Id. at 4. However, she found Oxford's testimony credible concerning his observations of the harm to M.W. following the January 9, 2019 incident, and there was evidence that M.W. had been threatened by an unknown female in June 2019. Id. at 5 . She also stated that defendant had failed to account for the firearm that was taken from M.W. on January 9, 2019, regardless of whose version of events is believed. Id. These facts raise a substantial concern for the safety of ...

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