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United States v. Hills

September 25, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RONALD HILLS



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

MEMORANDUM

INTRODUCTION

The Government has filed two motions in limine (Doc. Nos. 47 and 55) seeking admission of four particular pieces of evidence at Mr. Hills's upcoming trials on charges involving alleged bank robbery, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, possession of five grams or more of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and felon-in-possession of a firearm.*fn1 Mr. Hills opposes both motions.

Upon close evaluation of the opposing arguments, including the oral arguments ably presented by counsel to further supplement their respective written submissions, the Court grants the motions in part, and denies them in part, and, as to one aspect, holds an issue in abeyance as discussed in this Memorandum.

DISCUSSION

1. Mr. Hills's Alleged Robbery of Elderly Couple on August 21, 2008 and Alleged Threat to Use a Gun

The Government is prepared to introduce evidence that Mr. Hills accosted an elderly couple on August 21, 2008 and verbally threatened to shoot them if they resisted his demands. The Government advocates limited use of this evidence to prove that the gun found at Mr. Hills's wife's house*fn2 the next day on August 22, 2008 belonged to Mr. Hills. During the robbery of the elderly couple, however, the Government acknowledges that Mr. Hills did not brandish a gun when he allegedly threatened to shoot his robbery victims if they did not cooperate with him. Neither member of the couple ever saw Mr. Hills with a gun. Likewise, it appears they did not see a bulge in Mr. Hills's clothes or make any other observation that would suggest the physical presence of a gun.

To support the admission of this evidence, the Government cites cases upholding the admission of testimony regarding a defendant's prior possession of a gun that was the same as, or at least similar to, the gun involved in charges at issue. See, e.g. United States v. Tenorio, 2009 WL 361365 (10th Cir. 2009) (upholding admission of girlfriend's testimony that she had seen her boyfriend in possession of the gun at issue - - which had been found in her car - - on two prior occasions, once within a few months of the arrest of the boyfriend and once the day before the arrest, and that defendant boyfriend had threatened her with it); United States v. Toliver, 283 Fed. Appx. 869 (2nd Cir. 2008) (upholding admission of testimony that witness saw defendant in possession of a similar, and possibly the same, gun about 30 days before the charged offense). These cases are factually so different from Mr. Hills's case that the Court concludes they do not support the admission of the testimonial evidence proposed here. The most that this proposed evidence could be is that Mr. Hills threatened to use an unseen - - and quite possibly nonexistent - - gun. The Court does not perceive the reliability of such evidence or its probity on the issue of whether a specific gun found the next day at Ms. Geter-Hills's residence belonged to Mr. Hills. Moreover, the prejudice of admitting testimony about the robbery of an elderly couple, an act that the jury certainly could consider to be shocking or outrageous (or at least as adding an element of prejudicial antipathy toward Mr. Hills), would far outweigh any dubious probative value. Hence, this proposed evidence as currently described by the Government will not be admitted.

2. Evidence of Mr. Hills's "Casing" Behavior

Mr. Hills is charged with robbing the National Penn Bank on September 18, 2008. Bank surveillance photos show blurry or indistinct pictures of a man wearing a Tee-shirt that says "ENYCE 1996." About an hour earlier, a man entered a Citizens Bank branch and behaved suspiciously enough that bank employees alerted security. The security photographs taken at the Citizens Bank show a clearer picture of a man wearing a Tee-shirt that says "ENYCE 1996." Employees of National Penn were shown the Citizens Bank photo and identified the man as the same person who robbed National Penn Bank. In addition, both Mr. Hills's wife and his girlfriend identified the man in the Citizens Bank photo as Mr. Hills.

The Government seeks to admit the Citizens Bank photo, as well as testimony regarding how that photo came to the attention of the authorities. Mr. Hills argues that the evidence is cumulative - - because at least some witnesses were able to identify him and connect him to the National Penn events without the Citizens Bank photos.

Neither the Government nor Mr. Hills cite any case law that involves a similar factual scenario. The Court did not locate any case law factually on point. However, the Court turns to common sense to conclude that the Citizens Bank photo is admissible because it tends to prove the identity of the person who robbed National Penn Bank. Nonetheless, as the Court cautioned the Government during oral argument on this matter, the Court will carefully monitor and limit the preparatory testimony regarding the photo as it may relate to the supposed "casing" behavior at Citizens Bank. The Court will permit only closely circumscribed contextual testimony to the extent background information is absolutely necessary to explain how the photograph came to the attention of the authorities.

3. Testimony Concerning Mr. Hills's Possession of the Black Llama .45 cal. Handgun Found at the Hills's Residence

Ms. Richardson, Mr. Hills's girlfriend and co-defendant on the armed robbery charges, apparently would testify that Mr. Hills gave her his handgun in early 2007, that she kept it for four months, and that she gave it back to him in July, 2007. She would acknowledge that she did not see Mr. Hills with the gun after that time. The Government hopes to offer this evidence to prove that Mr. Hills possessed the gun a year later, in August 2008, when it was found in the bedroom that he shared with his wife at his wife's home. The Government again relies on Tenorio, 2009 WL 3613651, ...


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