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United States v. Hills

September 24, 2010


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 ...

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