Tennessee Supreme Court Applies Criminal Savings Statute to Reinstate Sentence for Repealed Criminal Offense

August 30, 2022

Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated a sentence for a now-repealed criminal offense. The Court held that a person who commits an offense that is later repealed must be prosecuted under the law in effect when the offense was committed, unless the legislature says otherwise.

Marvin Maurice Deberry was convicted of driving after being declared a motor vehicle habitual offender (MVHO). After trial, but before Deberry’s sentencing hearing, the legislature repealed the MVHO offense and replaced it with procedures to seek reinstatement of a driver’s license that was revoked or restricted solely because of the person’s MVHO status.

After a sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed a sentence of five years with eleven months and twenty-nine days to be served in confinement and the remainder on Community Corrections. The court also imposed a $1,500 fine. Deberry then filed a motion for a reduction of sentence. He cited a Tennessee law, known as the criminal savings statute, which establishes default rules for prosecutions involving repealed or amended penal statutes. Generally, defendants must be prosecuted under the law in effect at the time of the offense. But if a new law “provides for a lesser penalty,” then any punishment imposed must be in accordance with the new law. The trial court agreed with Deberry that the new law repealing the MVHO offense “provides for a lesser penalty,” reasoning that “no penalty is a lesser penalty.” So the court granted Deberry’s motion and entered an amended judgment reflecting the MVHO conviction but imposing no punishment. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated Deberry’s sentence. After examining the statutory text, broader statutory framework, and persuasive authorities from other jurisdictions, the Court ruled that a statute that repeals a criminal offense does not “provide for a lesser penalty” within the meaning of the criminal savings statute. Instead, when a statute repeals a criminal offense altogether rather than reducing the punishment for the offense, the defendant must be prosecuted—that is, convicted and sentenced—under the law in effect at the time of the offense.

The Court also rejected Deberry’s argument that the law repealing the MVHO offense “provides for a lesser penalty” by failing to eliminate certain administrative fees that MVHOs must pay to seek reinstatement of their driver’s licenses. The Court explained that that the new law did not provide for these pre-existing fees and that such fees are not penalties in any event.

To read the Court’s unanimous opinion in State of Tennesee vs. Marvin Maurice Deberry, authored by Justice Sarah K. Campbell, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.