Tennessee Supreme Court Rules the Tennessee Constitution Provides No Greater Ex Post Facto Protection than the Federal Constitution

December 30, 2016

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that application of the Exclusionary Rule Reform Act (“ERRA”), Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-6-108(a), to cases in which the evidence was seized prior to the statute’s enactment does not violate the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws.  Ex post facto laws are laws that are passed and take effect after an event takes place but are still applied to that event.  Both the United States and Tennessee constitutions prohibit such laws under certain circumstances.  The ERRA provides that evidence seized pursuant to a search warrant shall be admissible notwithstanding a good faith mistake or technical violation made by a law enforcement officer, court official, or issuing magistrate.  In determining that retroactive application of the ERRA did not violate the federal or state constitution, the Court concluded that the ex post facto clause of Tennessee’s Constitution is similar in definition and scope to that contained in the United States Constitution, overruling prior precedent that held that our state’s ex post facto clause provided greater protection than its federal counterpart. 

This case arose when law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for the residence of the defendant, John Henry Pruitt, executed a search, and seized evidence of a crime that was later admitted into evidence against the defendant at trial.  The warrant displayed two dates, October 18 and 19, 2010, giving rise to a question of when the warrant was actually issued.  Testimony at the pre-trial suppression hearing established that any error in the warrant was a technical error or a mistake due to the time of day—the proximity to midnight—and that the warrant was not executed prior to being officially issued. 

The trial court ruled that the ERRA applied to the defendant’s case, even though the statute did not take effect until July 1, 2011.  Following a trial, the defendant was convicted of two counts of first degree premeditated murder, one count of attempted premeditated murder, and three counts of aggravated assault.  He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The defendant appealed to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which upheld the defendant’s convictions on different grounds than the trial court.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s application for permission to appeal to consider whether retroactive application of the ERRA would violate constitutional protections against ex post facto laws and to reevaluate prior Tennessee ex post facto analysis.  The ex post facto challenge was the only constitutional issue involving the ERRA that was at issue in this case.   

In a unanimous opinion released today, the Court concluded that retroactive application of the ERRA does not infringe upon one’s constitutional protection against ex post facto laws.  The Court explained that to run afoul of the ex post facto prohibition, a statute must fall into one of four prohibited categories: it criminalizes an action that was innocent when done; it aggravates a crime; it changes the punishment for the crime; or it changes the rules of evidence to lower the quantum of evidence required to convict the offender.  The ERRA does not fall into any of those categories.

Moreover, the Court revisited prior Tennessee precedent analyzing our constitution’s ex post facto clause and concluded that nothing within the text of our constitution or our State’s history supports the conclusion that our ex post facto clause is more expansive than its federal counterpart.  This Court overruled prior precedent to the contrary.

Read the opinion in State v. John Henry Pruitt, authored by Justice Roger Page.