Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Denial of Post-Conviction Petition

June 10, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court in a unanimous decision clarified the appropriate legal standard to be applied in post-conviction cases involving allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s alleged failure to seek suppression of evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds.

Petitioner Tommie Phillips was convicted of felony murder, attempted first-degree murder, aggravated rape, especially aggravated burglary, and especially aggravated kidnapping for a 2008 attack of a family in their home in Memphis.  Phillips filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2014 asserting, in part, that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective by failing to seek suppression on Fourth Amendment grounds of various inculpatory statements he made to police.

Under the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), when a post-conviction petitioner alleges ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must prove that counsel performed deficiently and that the deficiency prejudiced the petitioner.  When a petitioner’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim is predicated on allegations that counsel failed to seek suppression of evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, to establish prejudice, the petitioner must prove that his Fourth Amendment claim is meritorious and that there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different absent the excludable evidence.  Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 375 (1986). 

In his petition for post-conviction relief, Phillips contended that trial counsel performed deficiently in failing to seek suppression of his statements on Fourth Amendment grounds because a motion to suppress on those grounds would have been granted. According to Phillips, such a motion would have been granted because there was an unreasonable delay in obtaining a probable cause hearing following his arrest.  The post-conviction court denied relief on this basis, finding that a probable cause hearing took place approximately seven hours after Phillips’ arrest and noting that at least one of the victims had identified him as the perpetrator by that time. Accordingly, the post-conviction court concluded that Phillips failed to demonstrate that trial counsel performed deficiently or that Phillips was prejudiced by the alleged deficiency.  The post-conviction court denied all other grounds for relief sought by Phillips.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision of the post-conviction court.  The court concluded that Phillips failed to prove that a Fourth Amendment challenge to his inculpatory statements would have been successful.  The court also determined that, even if Phillips had proved that a Fourth Amendment challenge would have been successful, he still failed to prove that the result of his trial would have been different given the overwhelming proof of his guilt.  

In a unanimous decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that, to establish a post-conviction claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s alleged failure to seek suppression of evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, a petitioner must prove that a suppression motion would have been meritorious, that counsel’s failure to file such a motion was objectively unreasonable, and that, but for counsel’s objectively unreasonable omission, there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different absent the excludable evidence.  Applying this three-pronged inquiry to the facts of Phillips’ case, the Court concluded that Phillips failed to prove each of the prongs.  As a result, the Court concluded that Phillips failed to establish a successful claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, and, consequently, the Court upheld the denial of Phillips’ post-conviction petition. 

To read the unanimous opinion in Tommie Phillips v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.