Supreme Court Decisions Change Rules for Determining When Convictions for Multiple Crimes are Permitted

March 9, 2012

Nashville In three unanimous decisions, the Tennessee Supreme Court significantly changed the tests and procedures for determining when multiple convictions are permissible under the state and federal constitutions.

In State v. Watkins and State v. Cross, the state confronted the issue of whether multiple convictions under different statutes violate the state constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. After reviewing historical developments, the Court concluded that the time has come to abandon the test previously announced by the Court in State v. Denton and adopt the same elements test announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Blockburger v. United States. The Blockburger test is already used by federal courts and many state courts. It requires courts to focus on the elements of the crimes and the legislative intent when determining whether multiple convictions violate double jeopardy. Adopting the Blockburger test will allow Tennessee courts to decide double jeopardy claims in a more straightforward manner.

The Court emphasized that there cannot be a double jeopardy violation unless the convictions arise from the same act or transaction. Similarly, the Court pointed out that if the Legislature expressly states that multiple convictions are permissible or if each offense includes a different element, courts will presume the Legislature intended to permit multiple punishments.    

In State v. White, the Supreme Court announced changes in cases involving charges of kidnapping and an accompanying felony. The Court concluded that a separate due process test is no longer necessary for determining whether convictions for kidnapping and an accompanying felony may be upheld. Instead, a properly instructed jury must decide whether a defendant who detains a victim during a crime, such as rape or robbery, can be convicted of kidnapping in addition to the other crime. When the charges result in a kidnapping conviction, the trial and appellate courts must uphold the conviction if the evidence is legally sufficient. The opinion overrules the approach taken in State v. Anthony and refined in State v. Dixon by requiring a jury to determine if the evidence is sufficient to support a conviction for kidnapping and another offense.  The opinion also overrules State v. Cozart, in which the Court concluded that judges, as opposed to juries, were required to determine whether a separate kidnapping conviction violated constitutional standards.

In today’s decision, the Court set out temporary jury instructions and invited the Tennessee Pattern Jury Instruction Committee to develop permanent guidelines for future cases. The Court also pointed out that its decision does not create a new rule of constitutional law and, therefore, does not require retroactive application.

To read the State v. Watkins opinion authored by Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark, visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/watkins_nigel_k_opn.pdf.

To read the State v. Cross opinion authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/cross_lonnie.opn_.pdf.

To read the State v. White opinion authored by Justice Gary R. Wade, visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/whitejason_opncorr.pdf.