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Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Inevitable Discovery Doctrine in Raid of Home to Execute Arrest Warrant

The White County Sheriff’s Office asked neighboring Warren County Sheriff’s Office to look for Ronald Dishman. An employee of White County communicated that Dishman was likely armed with a gun and located at an address in Warren County.

Possessing no other information, nine Warren County deputies converged on defendant’s home and saw a White male, who had been standing on the porch, enter the home. This began a tense, 30-minute period during which deputies ordered the occupants of the home to come out.

Samantha Grissom Scott exited the house, was ordered to her knees, and directed to “walk” backwards to the wooded edge of her property. A short while later, a friend of hers named Scott Bell also exited and surrendered to police.

Scott denied that Dishman was present in the home and consistently refused to consent to a search of the home. She offered to phone Dishman, but police refused and continued to demand that Dishman exit the house. Deputies, believing Dishman was inside, pressed Scott for consent to search the home, which she reluctantly gave after nearly an hour of continuous demands that she consent.

Deputies never found Dishman, but they did locate methapmphetamine in a bag on the floor in a bedroom. Scott was charged with possession of more than 26 grams of meth with intent to deliver, tampering with evidence, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

She filed a motion to suppress the search, arguing her consent was the result of “a lot of coercion.” The trial court denied her motion, and she pleaded guilty on the condition she be allowed to appeal the denial of her suppression motion.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial on the grounds that “[t]he deputies could have obtained and executed a search warrant without Defendant’s consent in order to search the home for Mr. Dishman, and the drug-related evidence would have been discovered.”

This is known as the “inevitable discovery doctrine.” Evidence obtained absent a valid search warrant is generally excluded if a warrant was required. Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006). An exception is where “the evidence in question would inevitably have been discovered without reference to the police error or misconduct.” Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984).

The Court observed that the majority of the Court of Appeals “misapprehend” the inevitable discovery doctrine. It explained the doctrine as follows: “The ultimate test is whether the evidence would have been discovered through an independent, proper avenue that comports with the Fourth Amendment. Whether law enforcement could have obtained a search warrant is not the same inquiry as whether law enforcement ultimately would have obtained that search warrant or whether law enforcement inevitably would have discovered the evidence through lawful means. We must not conflate these important distinctions.”

The Court noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (whose jurisdiction includes Tennessee) has similarly rejected the “could have” theory of the inevitable discovery doctrine. United States v. Quinney, 583 F.3d 891 (6th Cir. 2009). In fact, the Court cited to a line of cases decided by the Sixth Circuit that rejects the argument that when police have probable cause to obtain a search warrant but fail simply fail to do so the inevitable discovery doctrine applies to cure the error. Id.; United States v. Haddix, 239 F.3d 766 (6th Cir. 2001). The Court explained that federal law is consistent with Tennessee jurisprudence in that it’s insufficient to show that police could have obtained a warrant, stating, “That is not enough to show that the evidence would have been inevitable discovered.” 

Turning to the present case, the Court determined that nothing about the search of Scott’s home was inevitable. All deputies had was a possible address for an armed and wanted man. The home did not belong to Dishman, and there was no corroborating evidence placing him at Scott’s home at that time.

The State asserted that Scott consented to the search, consent also being a valid exemption to the warrant requirement established in Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973). However, the State must prove the consent was “freely and voluntarily given.” Id.

While a court may consider several factors when determining whether consent was voluntary, State v. Cox, 171 S.W.3d 174 (Tenn. 2005), the Court observed and concluded, “[t]he testimony at the suppression hearing described [Scott] as being extremely upset, crying, and ultimately relenting to the officers’ requests only after being detained for nearly an hour. Under the circumstances, [Scott’s] consent to search the home was not freely or voluntarily given.”

The State also claimed exigent circumstances justified the search because an armed suspect could pose “an immediate risk of serious harm to the police officers or others.” State v. Meeks, 262 S.W.3d 710 (Tenn. 2008).

However, the Court noted that Bell was the only male observed at the property, and he was not seen armed. Further, after he exited the home and was identified as not being Dishman, deputies lacked any objective reason to believe Dishman was in the home or posed an immediate threat to anyone.

Since the search of the home was not inevitable, nor was it justified on any other basis, the Court determined the search violated the U.S. and state constitutions.

 

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Related legal case

State v. Scott

 

 

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