Supreme Court Rules on Admissibility of Evidence Obtained Pursuant to a Probation Search

November 21, 2019

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a Court of Criminal Appeals decision suppressing evidence seized pursuant to a probation search.   

The defendant, Angela Hamm, was sentenced to six years for manufacturing a controlled substance.  The trial judge suspended her sentence and placed her on supervised probation.  She resided in Obion County with her husband, defendant David Hamm, who was not on any form of supervised release.  Acting upon information received from a confidential informant, law enforcement officers conducted a warrantless search of the residence based on Angela Hamm’s probation status.  In the defendants’ shared bedroom, officers found pills, two glass pipes, methamphetamine, and scales.  The defendants were each arrested and later jointly indicted for six counts of possession of controlled substances with intent to sell or deliver and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia. 

Prior to trial, defendants filed motions to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search.  The trial court suppressed the evidence against both defendants and dismissed the indictments.   The State appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the rulings of the trial court.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s application for permission to appeal in this case to consider whether reasonable suspicion is required for a probation search pursuant to search conditions contained in the probation agreement. 

The Court held that probation search conditions that permit a search, without warrant, of a probationer’s person, vehicle, property, or place of residence by any Probation/Parole Officer or law enforcement officer, at any time, do not require law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the search of the defendants’ bedroom was constitutionally reasonable.  In addition, the search of the Hamms’ shared bedroom, including items that belonged to David Hamm, was permissible pursuant to the doctrine of common authority. 

Justice Cornelia A. Clark filed a separate dissenting opinion, stating that the majority erroneously equated the privacy interests of probationers and parolees and that the state and federal constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures require law enforcement officers to establish reasonable suspicion for a warrantless search of a probationer.   Justice Clark would require the State to establish that the search was based on reasonable suspicion of the probationer’s criminal activity. 

Justice Sharon G. Lee also filed a separate dissenting opinion. In her view, the majority opinion upholding the warrantless, suspicionless search of the Hamm residence deprived the defendants of their rights to be free from unreasonable searches under the state and federal constitutions.  According to Justice Lee, law enforcement should have at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before conducting a warrantless search of a probationer’s home. 

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. Angela Hamm, authored by Justice Roger A. Page, and Justice Cornelia A. Clark’s and Justice Sharon G. Lee’s separate dissenting opinions, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.