Supreme Court Reiterates Trial Courts Have Limited Authority to Modify Final Orders, Notes Ambiguities in the Tennessee Sexual Offender Registration Act

January 29, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that a criminal trial court lacks authority to partially vacate its own order dismissing criminal prosecutions once the order becomes final. 

In 2012, the Shelby County Criminal Court filed a final order dismissing criminal prosecutions against Carl Allen a/k/a Artier Perkins for violating certain reporting provisions of the Tennessee Sexual Offender Registration, Verification, and Tracking Act. In this 2012 order, the criminal court explained its determination that Mr. Allen’s 1995 Florida sexual battery conviction required him to comply only with the Registration Act’s reporting provisions relating to sexual offenders and not the more stringent provisions relating to violent sexual offenders.

In 2014, Mr. Allen submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation a request for termination of his registration requirements because it had been 10 years since the completion of his sentence. While reviewing this request, TBI concluded Mr. Allen should have been classified as a violent offender, which would require him to register for life.

TBI then asked the Shelby County Criminal Court to modify its final 2012 order dismissing criminal prosecutions against Mr. Allen. The TBI argued that the criminal court had lacked authority in 2012 to determine Mr. Allen’s offender classification and that the portion of its 2012 order determining Mr. Allen’s offender classification was void and should be vacated.  In a 2017 order, the criminal court agreed with the TBI’s arguments and partially vacated its 2012 order. 

Mr. Allen appealed.  The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed his appeal without ruling on the merits after concluding that Mr. Allen had no right of appeal in these circumstances.  The Supreme Court granted Mr. Allen permission to appeal and ruled that he had a right of appeal from the criminal court’s 2017 order. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the criminal court’s 2012 order became final thirty days after its entry because neither party appealed or filed a post-trial motion that would have stopped the running of the time for appeal.  The Supreme Court explained that trial courts have no authority to modify final orders except to correct clerical errors, oversights, or omissions in accordance with Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.  The Supreme Court concluded that the criminal court exceeded the authority Rule 36 provides; therefore, the Supreme Court vacated the criminal court’s 2017 order and confirmed that the criminal court’s 2012 order remains intact and final.

The Supreme Court declined to address Mr. Allen’s constitutional challenges to the Registration Act because he had not raised the arguments in the criminal court.  However, the Supreme Court acknowledged that Mr. Allen had identified several ambiguities in the Registration Act concerning how persons who commit sexual offenses in other states should be classified as sexual offenders or violent sexual offenders in Tennessee.  The Supreme Court urged the state legislature to clarify these ambiguities.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Carl Allen a/k/a Artie Perkins, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov