Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Evidence Necessary to Convict Under Criminal Stalking Laws

December 30, 2016

The Tennessee Supreme Court has clarified that the criminal offense of stalking, as defined under Tennessee law, contains both an objective element and a subjective element of significant mental suffering or distress that must be met to sustain a conviction.  The Court emphasized that the State must present evidence that a victim actually experienced significant mental suffering or distress.

This matter arose when the defendant, Nicole Flowers, placed disparaging signs at the home and workplace of the alleged victim, Jason Dale, with whom she had a daughter.  In addition to the signs accusing Mr. Dale of being a “deadbeat dad,” Ms. Flowers also initiated several unwanted text messages in which she chastised Mr. Dale for his lack of involvement in their daughter’s life.  The culminating event occurred when Ms. Flowers followed Mr. Dale by vehicle when he left his place of employment. This event ended when Mr. Dale arrived at the local sheriff’s department, parked his vehicle, and walked inside.  Ms. Flowers was subsequently arrested and charged with stalking.    

In a bench trial, Mr. Dale testified generally that he did not want to be defamed and that Ms. Flowers had placed his job in jeopardy.  The trial court concluded that the facts of the case established the element of significant mental suffering or distress.  The trial court also rejected Ms. Flowers’s argument asserting that her actions were protected as freedom of speech under the First Amendment.  She was sentenced to a term of eleven months, twenty-nine days, all of which was to be served on probation.  Ms. Flowers appealed to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which upheld Ms. Flowers’s conviction.

The Supreme Court granted Ms. Flowers’s permission to appeal to consider whether the evidence presented in the bench trial was sufficient to sustain her conviction and whether her placing disparaging signs in the community was an exercise of free speech that was protected by the First Amendment.   

In a unanimous opinion released today, the Court concluded that the evidence presented at Ms. Flowers’s trial was insufficient to sustain her conviction of stalking.  Specifically, the Court held that while the facts of this case could objectively cause significant mental suffering or distress, Mr. Dale did not testify that he personally or actually experienced such feelings, as required by the subjective element of the offense.   

Because the Court’s opinion regarding the sufficiency of the evidence resolved the case, the Court did not address Ms. Flowers’s argument that the conviction violated her right to freedom of speech.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Nicole Flowers, authored by Justice Roger Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.