Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Judge Lacks Authority to Sign Search Warrant for Property Outside Court’s Jurisdiction
by Dale Chappell
The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the tossing of evidence against nearly 100 defendants, after the Court agreed with the lower courts and held that a judge cannot sign a search warrant to search property located outside the judge’s jurisdiction and that the “good faith exception” does not apply.
The Court decision came after the State’s interlocutory appeal of the trial court’s order was rejected, tossing evidence seized in connection with 18 search warrants signed by a magistrate for property located outside that judge’s jurisdiction. The illegal searches netted almost 100 defendants involving drugs, guns, and money. The trial court declared the search warrants constitutionally invalid and granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, which the Criminal Court of Appeals affirmed, citing the “plain language” of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 41.
Rule 41 provides that “a magistrate with jurisdiction in the county where the property is sought is located may issue a search warrant.” The “critical question,” the Court said, was “What is the geographical jurisdiction of a circuit court judge who is acting as a magistrate?”
The General Assembly divided Tennessee into 31 “judicial districts,” and judges assigned to those districts, by law, cannot reach into other districts without “interchange, appointment, or designation” or other lawful ground, the Court explained. None of those exceptions applied in this case.
Instead, the State argued that a different statute gives judges statewide jurisdiction, pointing to several federal court decisions applying the same reasoning. But because the statutes conflicted, the Court concluded that the more specific statute controls, requiring judges to remain within their jurisdictions. The Court also expressly disagreed with the federal courts.
The State’s good-faith-exception argument was similarly rejected by the Court. Citing a host of other courts’ decision, including one in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit by now-Justice Gorsuch in which the court determined that a warrant signed by a court lacking jurisdiction over the search location was “void ab initio” or was “no warrant at all.” The narrow good-faith-exception only applies when law enforcement executes a search warrant “in objectively reasonable good faith reliance on binding appellate precedent that specifically authorizes [the] particular police practice.” [emphasis in original] Since there was no binding precedent on the issue in this case, the good-faith exception could not apply, the Court concluded.
Accordingly, the Court held that the search warrant signed by the judge to search a location outside the court’s geographical jurisdiction is unconstitutional and affirmed the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision upholding dismissal of the evidence. See State v. Frazier, 558 S.W.3d 145 (Tenn. 2018).
Writer’s note: The Tennessee Supreme Court did recognize that several federal courts have held the exact opposite regarding the similar Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, applying the good-faith exception, when a judge signs a warrant to search a location outside the judge’s jurisdiction.
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Related legal case
State v. Frazier
|Cite||558 S.W.3d 145 (Tenn. 2018)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|