Supreme Court Determines Search Warrant Signed by Judge for Property Outside of District Invalid

September 26, 2018

The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that a circuit court judge in Tennessee lacks jurisdiction to issue search warrants for property located outside the judge’s statutorily defined judicial district unless the judge has obtained expanded geographical jurisdiction by interchange, designation, appointment, or another lawful means. 

In the case before the Court, several law enforcement agencies had worked on a collaborative investigation focusing on the distribution of methamphetamine in Middle Tennessee.  As part of this investigation, a circuit court judge of the 23rd Judicial District issued wiretap orders under a law that specifically provides circuit court judges with expanded geographical jurisdiction for the purpose of issuing wiretap orders.  Later, as part of the ongoing investigation and because of his familiarity with the case, law enforcement officers of the 23rd Judicial District asked the same 23rd Judicial District judge to issue search warrants for the residences of defendants Charlotte Frazier and Andreas Parks located in Montgomery and Robertson counties—counties of the 19th Judicial District.  The 23rd Judicial District circuit judge issued the search warrants, and during the ensuing searches, officers discovered substantial quantities of drugs, as well as cash, weapons, and drug paraphernalia.  

The defendants were charged in the 23rd Judicial District with conspiracy to distribute 300 grams or more of methamphetamine.  The defendants then moved to suppress the evidence located when the search warrants were executed.  They argued that the 23rd Judicial District judge lacked jurisdiction to issue search warrants for property located outside his statutorily assigned judicial district.  The State disagreed and pointed to another law that it interpreted as authorizing circuit court judges to issue search warrants “throughout the state,” including for property located outside their assigned judicial district.   The trial court granted the defendants’ motions to suppress, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted the State permission to appeal but ultimately affirmed the decisions of the courts below.  The Supreme Court reviewed applicable rules of criminal procedure and state statutes and held that geographic jurisdiction is confined to a circuit court judge’s statutorily defined judicial district unless the judge obtains expanded geographical jurisdiction by designation, interchange, or another lawful means.  The 23rd Judicial District judge had not obtained expanded geographic jurisdiction by any of these means.  Because the judge lacked authority to issue the warrants for the defendants’ residences located outside his statutorily defined judicial district, the Supreme Court held the warrants void and the searches unconstitutional. 

The Supreme Court applied the exclusionary rule to the evidence seized in the unconstitutional searches, which prevents the State from using the evidence against the defendants at trial.  The Supreme Court rejected the State’s argument—raised for the first time on appeal— that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule should apply to prevent exclusion of the evidence.  The Supreme Court explained that a void warrant issued by a circuit court judge lacking geographical jurisdiction is not the type of technical, clerical, or inadvertent error to which the good-faith exception applies. 

To read the unanimous opinion in State of Tennessee v. Charlotte Lynn Frazier and Andrea Parks, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of tncourts.gov.