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United States v. Hills

August 8, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RONALD HILLS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pratter, J.

MEMORANDUM

Defendant Ronald Hills moves to sever the counts of his indictment so that the counts be separated for purposes of conducting two trials. Specifically, Mr. Hills argues that under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 8(b) Counts 1 and 2 are not properly joined with Counts 3, 4, and 5, and under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 14 even if the counts are properly joined, trying all of the charges together would visit unfair prejudice upon him at trial. The Government counters that the counts were properly joined and that interests in judicial economy outweigh the minimal prejudice that might result from trying all counts at the same time.*fn1 Because the Court finds that the counts were not properly joined under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 8(b), the Court need not reach the question of whether a trial of all counts charged in the indictment would unfairly prejudice Mr. Hills.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Hills is charged in a Superseding Indictment with armed bank robbery (Count 1, along with defendant April Richardson, Mr. Hills's girlfriend), use of a firearm to commit the acts charged in Count 1 (Count 2), possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine (Count 3, along with defendant Sheree Geter-Hills, Mr. Hills's wife), possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime (Count 4), and possession of a firearm by a felon (Count 5). Counts 1 and 2 arise out of the armed robbery of the National Penn Bank, which took place on September 18, 2009, while Counts 3, 4, and 5 involve events occurring nearly a month earlier, on August 22, 2008, concerning drug related matters. The Superseding Indictment contains no factual link between the two sets of charges, aside from the alleged involvement of Mr. Hills himself in both sets of events.*fn2

Mr. Hills filed a motion to sever Counts 1 and 2 from Counts 3, 4, and 5, which the Government opposes. On July 7, 2009, the Court heard oral argument on the motion.

LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 8 governs the joinder of offenses and defendants:

(a) Joinder of Offenses. The indictment or information may charge a defendant in separate counts with 2 or more offenses if the offenses charged--whether felonies or misdemeanors or both--are of the same or similar character, or are based on the same act or transaction, or are connected with or constitute parts of a common scheme or plan.

(b) Joinder of Defendants. The indictment or information may charge 2 or more defendants if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction, or in the same series of acts or transactions, constituting an offense or offenses. The defendants may be charged in one or more counts together or separately. All defendants need not be charged in each count.

Fed. R. Crim. P. 8. When multiple defendants are charged in one case, as here, Rule 8(b) applies to both the proper joinder of defendants and the proper joinder of offenses. See U.S. v. Irizarry, 341 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2003). Rule 8(b) is more restrictive than Rule 8(a), in that Rule 8(b) does not expressly extend to allow joinder of acts that are "of the same or similar character" as does Rule 8(a). See id. at 287 n.4. Nonetheless, Rule 8(b)'s terms are broadly construed. For instance, all that is required for charges to be considered part of the same "transaction" is that there is a logical relationship between them. See U.S. v. Kemp, No. CRIM. A. 04-370, 2004 WL 2757867, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 2, 2004). To determine whether there is a logical relationship between charges, trial judges may look at pre-trial documents, as well as at the indictment. See U.S. v. McGill, 964 F.2d 222, 242 (3d Cir. 1992).

Having weighed carefully the parties' arguments, and acknowledging that this case presents an undeniably close question on the issue of severance, the Court concludes for the reasons stated below that the Motion should be granted.

DISCUSSION

Mr. Hills argues that the charges contained in Counts 1 and 2 do not share a factual nexus with the charges in Counts 3, 4, and 5. He contends that the acts charged in Counts 1 and 2 occurred on different dates, involved different guns of different characteristics, and involved different co-defendants from the acts charged in Counts 3, 4, and 5. He notes that the Government did not even try to argue that the alleged armed robbery was committed to further the alleged drug crimes, or vice versa. Mr. Hills argues that without a physical or temporal connection between the events, Counts 1 and 2 are misjoined with Counts 3, 4, and 5 and should be tried separately.

The Government responds by noting that Rule 8(b) should be construed liberally in favor of joinder. See U.S. v. Baker, 10 F.3d 1374, 1387 (9th Cir. 1993).*fn3 The Government emphasizes that both alleged crimes were committed during a relatively short span of time using a firearm. It proffers that Mr. Hills's co-defendant in the armed robbery charges (Ms. Richardson) will identify the gun involved in the drug charges and testify generally that Mr. Hills trafficked in crack cocaine.*fn4 The Government also points to the fact that Mr. Hills's wife and co-defendant in the drug charges (Ms. Geter-Hills) identified Mr. ...


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