Late last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a trio of critically important decisions on criminal-constitutional issues. Continuing a recent trend on the topic, criminal defendants got walloped.
1. Further Restricting Coram Nobis Relief
In Nunley v. State of Tennessee, the Court significantly restricted the measure of relief available under the writ of error coram nobis. Coram nobis is a procedural vehicle used to help remedy wrongful convictions based on new evidence that is discovered after a defendant has been convicted. Regrettably, the Court’s unanimous decision in Nunley narrowed the writ’s already limited scope even further.
Nunley involved a defendant who was convicted of aggravated rape in 1998 and alleged that DNA testing proved that he was innocent of the crime. Mr. Nunley further alleged that in 2014, he discovered that the State had withheld critical exculpatory evidence when the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office included four previously-undisclosed exhibits in a responsive pleading that it filed in opposition to his petition for DNA testing under the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act.
Upon review, the Court rejected Mr. Nunley’s plea for relief. Three critical, novel holdings are worthy of emphasis:
First, the Court held that the writ of error coram nobis cannot be used to advance claims under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). A “Brady” claim is a claim that a defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated because the State withheld exculpatory evidence that it is constitutionally required to provide to defendants. This oft-overlooked violation can be characterized as pervasive in Shelby County and other areas in Tennessee. Further, when Brady violations are acknowledged—even in capital cases—the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court has given District Attorneys little more than a slap on the wrist. Henceforth, however, Brady claims will no longer be cognizable via the writ of error coram nobis. Instead, they must be brought via the Tennessee Post-Conviction Procedure Act.
Second, the Court held that “timeliness under the statute of limitations is an ‘essential element’ of a coram nobis claim that must appear on the face of the petition.” Unless tolled, a writ of error coram nobis must be filed within one year of the date of a defendant’s conviction or it will be forever unavailable as time-barred. Given, among other things, the overwhelming difficulties associated with reinvestigating one’s case from prison and Tennessee’s structurally deficient indigent defense system, this time limitation is so short that it renders the writ practically useless. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, criminal defendants who were exonerated in 2017 “spent an average of 10.6 years incarcerated for their convictions.” Similarly, in 2016, “[a]lmost two-thirds of the DNA exonerations in 2016 were murder cases, and the average time from conviction to exoneration was 21 years.” Accordingly, absent rare and extraordinary circumstances, the one-year statute of limitations will operate to foreclose virtually all meaningful opportunities for relief under Tennessee’s coram nobis statute.
Third, and most significantly, the Court held that “coram nobis petitions with inadequate allegations are susceptible to summary dismissal on the face of the petition, without discovery or an evidentiary hearing.” Importantly, the vast majority of coram nobis petitions are filed by pro se inmates who have no right or ability to have an attorney assist them. As a result, this easily-overlooked bombshell will essentially end coram nobis relief across Tennessee, because vanishingly few pro se litigants will be able to draft a petition that successfully navigates the procedural morass necessary to state a cognizable claim for relief on their own. Thus, when coram nobis petitions are filed, nearly all of them will now be dismissed summarily: (1) without a response; (2) without a hearing; and (3) without the opportunity to have an attorney file an amended petition to correct any shortcomings in the inmate’s pleadings. As a consequence, for nearly all practical purposes, the writ of error coram nobis is now dead.
2. Growing Expansion of “Good Faith” Exception to Unlawful Searches
In State v. Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court addressed a suppression issue in a gruesome case involving two murdered newborns. The contested search warrant involved a magistrate’s “simple and good-faith clerical error of incorrectly indicating on one of three copies of the warrant that it was issued at 11:35 ‘PM’ while correctly indicating on the other two copies that it was issued at 11:35 ‘AM.’” Although there is an extremely good reason why law enforcement is required to state the time of issuance on a search warrant—it helps “ensure that the warrant is obtained [legally] before the search is conducted, not [illegally] afterwards”—the error in Lowe genuinely appeared to have been a clerical one committed in good faith.
Following a similar set of circumstances, in 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the “Exclusionary Rule Reform Act,” which provides that evidence “shall not be suppressed” if the court determines that the violation was the result of a good faith mistake or “technical” violation. In a holding that would traditionally be important, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that, in enacting the ERRA, the General Assembly encroached upon the exclusive province of the judiciary in violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Accordingly, the Court held that “the ERRA represents an impermissible encroachment by the legislature upon this Court’s authority,” and it invalidated the ERRA as unconstitutional.
Even so, the Court nonetheless did precisely what the ERRA instructed, and it adopted its central legislative demand as a matter of Tennessee common law. Notably, this is the second time in three years that the Tennessee Supreme Court has “asserted” its authority under the separation of powers doctrine, only to “acquiesc[e] to the standard proposed by the General Assembly” and adopt as a matter of Tennessee common law precisely what the legislature had promulgated as a matter of statute.
In sum: finding that “the magistrate’s good-faith mistake was inconsequential,” the Court held that “the exclusionary rule should not be applied under these circumstances,” and it declined to suppress the evidence gathered as a result.
3. Wholesale Embrace of the “Good Faith” Exception
Third and finally, in a case relying on its just-released decision in Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court took up State v. Daniel, a decision involving whether the “good faith” exception should apply when law enforcement fails to provide a defendant with a copy of a search warrant at all.
One scholar has written about the Tennessee Supreme Court’s breakneck sprint toward a wholesale “good faith” exception in Tennessee. Somewhat less noticed has been the fact that Tennessee Supreme Court has also changed the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure to accommodate it, bolstering its permanence. Effective July 1, 2018, Rule 41 was amended to afford trial courts discretion to determine whether to exclude evidence that was gathered pursuant to a search warrant that is noncompliant with Rule 41. See 2018 Tenn. Ct. Order 0002, No. ADM2017-01892 (Tenn. 2018). The amendment altered the critical language of subsection (g)—which had stated that a motion to suppress “shall be granted” if a search warrant is defective—to read instead that the motion “may” be granted. This rule change, however, is merely a matter of formality, having already been adopted informally by judicial fiat. In 2015, in a cursory section on page 32 of its decision in State v. Corrin Reynolds, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly held that the notion that the word “shall” in Rule 41 ever actually meant what it said “would be peculiar indeed.”
With this context in mind, the Court easily concluded that the “good faith” exception to unlawful searches applied in Daniel, finding that although the search warrant at issue was not provided to the defendant, the mistake was an honest one and did not result in any prejudice. As a consequence, while continuing to characterize the good faith exception as a “narrow” one despite decision after decision indicating otherwise, the Court determined that the evidence would not be suppressed.
Taken together, the Tennessee Supreme Court continues its steady campaign to restrict the rights of the criminally accused. As a result, criminal defendants in Tennessee—particularly those who are innocent—may be forced to turn to federal courts for habeas corpus relief under equitable exceptions that excuse defendants’ failure to comply with inadequate state processes instead.