Supreme Court Overturns Forfeiture of Home, Says State Failed to Follow Law

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that, in actions under Tennessee’s civil forfeiture statutes, the State must present evidence that it complied with both the procedural and the substantive requirements in the law.

Under Tennessee’s civil forfeiture statutes, the State may obtain forfeiture of both real property, such as land and homes, and personal property, such as cars, cash or computers, if it is shown that the property is used in the commission of a crime. Forfeiture proceedings are civil in nature and are separate from any related criminal proceedings. Tennessee law permits courts to grant the State forfeiture of private property even if the property owner is not convicted of any crime.

In this case, Charles D. Sprunger brought his desktop home computer to a technician for repairs. The computer technician discovered many images of child pornography on the computer and reported it to law enforcement. Mr. Sprunger eventually was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The State secured a forfeiture warrant on Mr. Sprunger’s home and filed a lien on the property pending the outcome of the forfeiture proceedings. The home was sold in foreclosure, and the State filed a lawsuit for forfeiture of the excess proceeds from the foreclosure sale of the home. Unable to access the proceeds from the sale of his home, Mr. Sprunger lacked the funds to hire an attorney. In the forfeiture proceedings, he represented himself from prison by writing letters to the trial court and participating in the trial by telephone.

The trial court found that the State had met the procedural requirements in the forfeiture statutes and that Mr. Sprunger had “used” his home in the commission of his crime. Accordingly, the trial court granted the State’s request for forfeiture. Mr. Sprunger appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted Mr. Sprunger permission to appeal.

On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that forfeiture is disfavored under Tennessee’s constitution, meaning that Tennessee forfeiture statutes must be strictly interpreted.

In this case, the Court observed that civil forfeiture typically deprives property owners of funds to hire an attorney, so most, like Mr. Sprunger, must represent themselves in the forfeiture proceedings. Taking into account the Tennessee constitution’s disfavor toward forfeiture, the Supreme Court heldthat, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the State must come forward with affirmative proof that it complied with the procedural requirements in Tennessee’s statutes. The Court emphasized that courts must strictly construe all provisions of the forfeiture statutes, both procedural and substantive.

In Mr. Sprunger's case, the State failed to present affirmative proof it complied with the procedural requirements outlined in the civil forfeiture statutes. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision and vacated the forfeiture of excess proceeds from the sale of Mr. Sprunger's home.

Read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Charles D. Sprunger, authored by Justice Holly Kirby.