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United States v. Hills

December 22, 2009


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


Sheree Geter-Hills is charged with knowingly and intentionally possessing with intent to distribute more than five grams of crack cocaine, in violation of two provisions of the Controlled Substances Act.*fn1 She is also charged with aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute of the same crack cocaine, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2.

Ms. Geter-Hills moves to suppress, as proposed evidence at her trial, crack cocaine recovered from her home by Philadelphia police officers during a search conducted on August 22, 2008. She also moves to suppress certain statements that she is alleged to have made incident to that search. In addition, Ms. Geter-Hills moves to introduce certain statements alleged to have been made by her husband and co-defendant, Ronald Hills.


This case has its genesis in a robbery that allegedly occurred on August 21, 2008, during the course of which a man took a bank envelope containing $600 from an older married couple.*fn2

As they investigated this robbery, the police discovered evidence that led them to suspect a man named Ronald Hills. Using this evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search a home at 5839 Crittenden Street in Philadelphia, where they believed Mr. Hills was living. On the morning of August 22, 2008, a group of officers searched the Crittenden Street house. Though the police found mail addressed to Mr. Hills at that location, the house was vacant.

The officers then drove a short distance to 2059 Medary Avenue, a property owned by Mr. Hills' wife, Sheree Geter-Hills. Among the officers who arrived at the 2059 Medary Avenue house on the morning of August 22 were Sergeant Gary Ferguson and Detective Joseph Cremen, who were joined by two other detectives, and four or five members of the police department's warrant unit.*fn3 They arrived in three vehicles. When the officers reached the house, Mr. Hills was on the porch. The police promptly arrested Mr. Hills, and they told him that he was being arrested based on his suspected involvement in the August 21 robbery.

At some point during Mr. Hills' arrest, Ms. Geter-Hills appeared at the door, and the police told her why they were arresting Mr. Hills. They also told her that they were going to obtain a warrant to search the house and a car parked on the street, and that after doing so, they would return to search for evidence regarding the August 21 robbery. According to Det. Cremen, he told Ms. Geter-Hills that she would not be allowed back into her house unaccompanied until the police had obtained a warrant and completed their search, but she was otherwise at liberty to go wherever she pleased. Ms. Geter-Hills does not contest that she was unrestrained. She told Det. Cremen that if she was not in front of her own house when the police returned, she could be found at a specific neighbor's house, which she pointed out to him. Sgt. Ferguson recalls that Ms. Geter-Hills wanted to get a few items from her home, including a cell phone, and that he allowed her to do so, escorted by a female officer. Thereafter, Ms. Geter-Hills repaired to the neighbor's home to await developments.

The police secured the house at 2059 Medary Avenue, and Sgt. Ferguson and Det. Cremen returned to their headquarters with Mr. Hills, who they placed in a holding cell. Det. Cremen typed up an affidavit and obtained a search warrant, which proposed to authorize the police to search Ms. Geter-Hills' house and the adjacent car for "proof of residence, [a] bank envelope containing $600usc [United States currency], firearms, and any other items pertinent to this investigation." The warrant stated that the police were investigating a "robbery & related offenses."

After the warrant had been approved, but before Mr. Hills had been provided with a Miranda warning, Det. Cremen and Sgt. Ferguson both spoke with Mr. Hills. According to Det. Cremen, he told Mr. Hills that he had a search warrant for 2059 Medary Avenue, and asked Mr. Hills "if there was anything that [the police] would find." Det. Cremen recalls Mr. Hills responding that there would be "a firearm there and some narcotics," and further saying that, "whatever is in there, that's mine." He also recalls Mr. Hills saying, "I don't want her to have anything to do with this," and "this is all mine." Det. Cremens assumed at the time that by "her," Mr. Hills meant his wife, Ms. Geter-Hills. Finally, Mr. Hills informed Det. Cremen that drugs and a gun would be found in a drawer in Mr. Hills' bedroom.

Sgt. Ferguson was not present when Det. Cremens told Mr. Hills about the search warrant, but at some point while Mr. Hills was in the holding cell, Sgt. Ferguson recalls that Mr. Hills asked him, "Sarge, are you guys really going to get a search warrant for the house?" When Sgt. Ferguson said yes, Mr. Hills said something along the following lines: "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. ... Sarge, Sarge, listen. Anything you'll find in the house is mine. Everything you'll find in that house belongs to me." Sgt. Ferguson ended up having three or four conversations with Mr. Hills while Mr. Hills was in the holding cell, and recalls these conversations as follows:

[Mr. Hills] called me several times. He would yell out through the door, "Sarge, Sarge, Sarge." And I would go back there many times and more or less [say to him], like, "you know, you're really holding us up. Every time you keep calling me we have to stop typing." [And Mr. Hills said,] "Sarge, I want you to be certain everything you find in that house belongs to me. I don't want you locking her up. All that stuff in that house is mine.'"

Later in the morning, Sgt. Ferguson and Det. Cremen returned to 2059 Medary Avenue, accompanied by at least two other officers, and bringing along the search warrant which had been issued.*fn4 (They joined at least two other officers who had been charged with securing the house.) Det. Cremen testified that the first thing he did when they returned was to go to the neighboring house that Ms. Geter-Hills had identified as the place where she might be waiting. Ms. Geter-Hills was indeed there, and Det. Cremen told her that he had a search warrant.*fn5 Ms. Geter-Hills asked if she could accompany the police while the warrant was executed. The officers acceded to this request, and both testified that they would not have done so had they considered her to be a suspect in the robbery. They agreed that the presence of a suspect during a search of territory familiar to the suspect poses special hazards to officers, and Sgt. Ferguson noted that suspects have a special motive to destroy evidence. Sgt. Ferguson stated expressly that he did not consider Ms. Geter-Hills a suspect when the search began.

The officers testified that they began their search of the house by searching an upstairs bedroom, which appeared to be shared by a man and a woman. The police noticed that the room appeared to be divided: "male" property was on one side; "female" property, including a number of pocketbooks, was on the other. Sgt. Ferguson began by searching the male's dresser, where Mr. Hills had told them that they would find a gun and drugs. In the dresser, the police found a Llama handgun -- which was, as Mr. Hills had told the officers his gun would be, hidden in a Christmas stocking ...

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