TN Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Suppression of Evidence Based on an Invalid Search Warrant

TN Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Suppression of Evidence Based on an Invalid Search Warrant

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The TN Court of Criminal Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of all charges against Bob Spivey and Misty Buckner based on the suppression of all evidence that resulted from a search warrant executed on Misty Buckner's home. Both Spivey and Buckner were indicted with possession with intent to sell or deliver more than .5 grams of a Schedule II controlled substance, a class B felony. Both defendants moved to suppress all evidence obtained from a search of Buckner's home because the search warrant was unconstitutionally inadequate. The trial court agreed with the defendants and dismissed all charges, and the State subsequently appealed.

The search warrant described the target location as "506 Christie Street, a single story, single family dwelling with tan siding... it sits on the northeast corner of Christie Street and Brigance Avenue." The warrant was based on the information of an informant who saw a controlled substance inside the Buckner home. The 506 Christie Street property actually contains two buildings: one is tan and one is blue. Misty Buckner's home is blue. The tan building, having first been described as a detached garage, was actually occupied by another renter at the time of the search. The officer who sought to enforce the warrant, Officer McDowell, conceded that he misread the satellite pictures by labeling the house "tan", but that no one ever had any interest in searching the tan building in the first place. None of the officers entered or searched the tan building. Officer McDowell claims the only thing wrong with the warrant is it mistakes the color of the house.

The defendants argue, however, that the warrant is unconstitutionally invalid because it failed to distinguish the target building from the only tan building on the property. Because of this, the warrant authorized a search on the tan building, which was occupied by a person unrelated to this investigation.

The Court of Appeals started first by examining the rule used in the State of Tennessee regarding whether a warrant is unconstitutionally invalid. According to the Court, both federal and state laws require a warrant to "particularly" describe the place to be searched. The Supreme Court of TN has stated that the use of the word "particularly" shows that the legislature "intended the search warrant to be clear of ambiguity as to the place to be searched." This test ensures that the subject of the search does not endure an unreasonable search, and prevents the officer from searching the premises of a person unrelated to the matter by mistake.

The Court elaborated on a particular test that must be met to determine if the warrant is particular enough:

The requirement of a particular description of the place to be searched is met by a description which particularly points to a definitely ascertainable place so as to exclude all others, and enables the officer to locate the place to be searched with reasonable certainty without leaving it to his discretion.

Based on this test, the warrant is invalid because while it included an adequate description of the subject property, that same description authorized law enforcement to search the home of another. This is not particular enough under state and federal statutes.

The State further argued, using previous case law, that the defect in the warrant is "cured" by Officer McDowell's personal knowledge that the defendants lived in the blue building rather than the tan building. Previous cases have allowed this defense only when the officer personally knew or could prove that he was highly familiar with the area to be searched. While Officer McDowell may have known a little information about the property, the Court held that the record does not prove he had any personal knowledge of the property or the defendants.

After reviewing all the evidence and binding law, the Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal.
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