IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
September 24, 2010
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pratter, J.
On June 3, 2010, Ronald Hills was convicted by a jury of possessing (1) crack cocaine with an intent to distribute; and (2) a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. After the return of these guilty verdicts, the Government read into evidence a stipulation that Mr. Hills had been previously convicted of a felony, and the jury renewed its deliberations and found Mr. Hills guilty of the additional offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Mr. Hills has filed post-trial motions seeking a judgment of acquittal or, alternatively, a new trial. For the reasons set forth below, these motions will be denied.
During Mr. Hills' trial, the Government presented evidence that police officers had searched the home of Mr. Hills' wife, Sheree Geter-Hills; and that while they were in the master bedroom, police discovered a plastic bag of crack cocaine in one of Ms. Geter-Hills' handbags, and a loaded automatic Llama-brand handgun in a dresser. These items were the contraband that the jury ultimately convicted Mr. Hills of possessing.
Among the evidence that was presented to connect Mr. Hills to crack cocaine and the gun was the testimony of officers that Mr. Hills was at Ms. Geter-Hills' house when they arrived to conduct their search; that the house contained mail addressed to Mr. Hills; that there were men's clothes in Mr. Hills' size in a dresser in the bedroom; that there was crack cocaine paraphernalia, including an electronic scale, in the same dresser that contained the male clothing;*fn1 and that there was a loaded automatic Llama handgun in the same dresser, hidden in a Christmas stocking.*fn2
The jury also heard the testimony of Ms. Geter-Hills, who said that she and Mr. Hills had been sharing the master bedroom, and were the only people with keys to open its door; that Mr. Hills had been using the dresser in which the police officers found the male clothing, the drug paraphernalia, and the handgun; and that the bag of crack cocaine from her purse belonged to Mr. Hills. Ms. Geter-Hills also testified that she had previously seen Mr. Hills carry a heavy object into the house in a Christmas stocking, and said that she had later seen this same stocking in Mr. Hills' dresser and had found that it contained a gun like the Llama later uncovered by police.
Finally, the Government presented the testimony of a woman named April Richardson, who identified the electronic scale from the dresser as a scale that she had seen Mr. Hills use to weigh crack cocaine. Ms. Richardson testified that she recognized the particular electronic scale because it had a broken arm, and said that Mr. Hills had previously lent her the scale but that she had returned it to him not long before he was arrested. In the context of providing this testimony, and to give it probative weight, Ms. Richardson asserted that she had been involved in a long-term relationship with Mr. Hills, which was based in large part on dealing crack cocaine.
Mr. Hills has moved for the entry of a judgment of acquittal pursuant to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, on the ground that the evidence presented was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict with regard to possession of the drugs and possession of the handgun in furtherance of drug trafficking. In the alternative, he invokes Rule 33 to seek a new trial.
A. Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal
In evaluating a Rule 29 motion, the Court must "review the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the available evidence." United States v. Smith, 294 F.3d 473, 476 (3d Cir. 2002)(quoting United States v. Wolfe, 245 F.3d 257, 262 (3d Cir. 2001)). The Court must "draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the jury's verdict." Id. (quoting United States v. Andeskow, 88 F.3d 245, 251 (3d Cir. 1996)). Therefore, a finding of insufficiency should "be confined to cases where the prosecution's failure is clear." Id. (quoting United States v. Leon, 739 F.2d 885, 891 (3d Cir. 1984)). "[T]he evidence does not need to be inconsistent with every conclusion save that of guilt if it does establish a case from which the jury can find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Cooper, 567 F.2d 252, 254 (3d Cir. 1977).
Applying this standard, the Court finds that the evidence presented at trial constituted a sufficient basis for the jury to find Mr. Hills guilty of possessing both the crack cocaine and the handgun.*fn3 The testimony of Ms. Geter-Hills was substantially and substantively consistent with that of the police officers who testified at trial, and this testimony linked Mr. Hills to the house, the bedroom, the drug paraphernalia, the drugs themselves, and the Llama handgun. In addition, the testimony of Ms. Richardson linked Mr. Hills to the electronic scale that the police found in the dresser, from which the jury could have inferred that Mr. Hills was packaging drugs to sell.
Mr. Hills further argues that there was insufficient evidence presented to show that he possessed the handgun "in furtherance" of the crime of drug trafficking.*fn4 The Court disagrees. The Government presented evidence the Llama handgun was loaded; that the gun was located in the same dresser as the crack cocaine paraphernalia (and in the same room as the drugs); and that automatic handguns are often a tool of the crack cocaine trade, which is a violent activity.*fn5 An officer also testified that the police discovered $944 in cash in proximity to the gun and drugs. Taken together, these pieces of evidence provided the jury with a legally sufficient basis to find Mr. Hills guilty of possessing the gun to advance drug trafficking.*fn6
B. Motion for a New Trial
A trial court can order a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence only if the court "believes that there is a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice has occurred -- that is, that an innocent person has been convicted." United States v. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002). "Motions for a new trial based on the weight of the evidence are not favored," and they "are to be granted sparingly and only in exceptional cases."
Government of Virgin Islands v. Derricks, 810 F.2d 50, 55 (3d Cir. 1987).
This is not such an exceptional case. The Government presented substantial evidence linking Mr. Hills to the drugs and the handgun, and also to support the jury's conclusion that Mr. Hills used the gun in furtherance of drug trafficking activities. In addition, no evidence was ever presented which alerted the Court to a serious danger that Mr. Hills might be convicted though innocent.*fn7 Thus, the jury's guilty verdict was not contrary to the weight of the evidence.
Mr. Hills also argues that a new trial should be granted because the Court improperly admitted testimony from Ms. Richardson regarding her lengthy drug-trafficking relationship with Mr. Hills. The Court admitted this testimony pursuant to Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which allows the Government to present evidence of a defendant's other crimes, wrongs, or acts for certain purposes, such as "proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence or mistake or accident."*fn8
In this case, the Court allowed Ms. Richardson to testify as to Mr. Hills' previous drug trafficking because (1) the Government presented this testimony as evidence that Mr. Hills had intended to distribute the crack cocaine (since Ms. Richardson said that she had never known Mr. Hills to use crack himself -- testimony that was only meaningful if Ms. Richardson had reason to know Mr. Hills' habits); and (2) Ms. Richardson's identification of the electronic scale found in the dresser could only have been presented in the context of her statement that she had often seen Mr. Hills use this particular scale to weigh crack cocaine, and that Mr. Hills had lent it to her so that she could use it for the same purpose. The probative value of Ms. Richardson's testimony would have been dramatically vitiated if she had been unable to explain why she believed that Mr. Hills intended to sell the drugs, or why she recognized this particular scale.
The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recently emphasized that "bad acts" evidence is generally admissible unless introduced "solely to prove criminal propensity." United States v. Green, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16431, *29 (3d Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original). Given that Ms. Richardson's testimony shed light on Mr. Hills' possible intentions regarding the drugs, and also provided a basis for her ability to identify the scale (and for the jury to view this scale's presence in the dresser as incriminating), this testimony was properly admitted.
Finally, Mr. Hills renews a motion for mistrial that was denied at trial. During her testimony, Ms. Geter-Hills recalled August 22, 2008 as "the day police officers came to arrest Ronald." Mr. Hills argues that the utterance of this statement justifies a new trial because Ms. Geter-Hills supposedly tipped the jury off to the fact that the police were already looking to arrest Mr. Hills before they arrived at her home and conducted the search that uncovered the drugs and the Llama handgun.*fn9 Indeed, unbeknownst to the jury, this was the case: Mr. Hills was a suspect in a bank robbery investigation, and this is why the police came to Ms. Geter-Hills' home.
However, Ms. Geter-Hills' statement was sufficiently oblique and imprecise that there is no reason to believe that it prejudiced Mr. Hills. Given that Mr. Hills was on trial, the jury was already aware that he had been arrested on August 22, 2008. The only question is whether Ms.
Geter-Hills' statement was so formulated as to make evident that the police were already planing to arrest Mr. Hills for a different crime -- i.e., one other than drug or gun possession -- before they arrived at the house that day. Even if the jury picked up on the subtle implication that the police came to the house with the prior intention of arresting Mr. Hills, no evidence was presented that Mr. Hills was being charged with any other crimes -- and even a sophisticated juror might easily have concluded that in coming to the house, the police had been acting on other evidence of the drug crime for which Mr. Hills was on trial.
The Court can see no reason to believe that Ms. Geter-Hills' statement would have meaningfully affected the deliberations of a rational jury in any way at all, and thus reaffirms the earlier holding that a mistrial declaration would have been inappropriate in this case.
For the reasons set forth above, Mr. Hills' motions for a judgment of acquittal or, alternatively, a new trial will be denied. An order to this effect follows.
GENE E.K. PRATTER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE