Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Conviction in Theft of House Case

November 29, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the state’s theft statute applies to real property.  In the case, the defendant challenged whether Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-14-103 encompassed theft of real property, in this case a house. The Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions of Class A felony theft and aggravated burglary. 

In early March 2013, the defendant, Tabitha Gentry, entered and seized a foreclosed, bank-owned East Memphis house valued at over $2 million.  Ms. Gentry padlocked the front gate to the property, changed the locks on the doors, posted signs around the property advising others to keep out, and filed paperwork with the Shelby County Register of Deeds Office claiming to take ownership of the house based on her rights as a Moorish National.  A few days after the home was seized, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office entered and took back control of the house and pulled over and arrested Ms. Gentry as she was driving away from the house. 

Ms. Gentry was found guilty by a jury in April 2015 of theft of property valued at over $250,000, a Class A felony, and aggravated burglary, a Class C felony, and given a 20-year sentence.  Ms. Gentry appealed her conviction, arguing laws in Tennessee do not recognize the crime of theft of real property.  The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected this argument and affirmed her conviction. 

The Supreme Court accepted Ms. Gentry’s appeal and ruled that theft of real property is a criminal offense under Tennessee law.  The Supreme Court emphasized while squatting in an unoccupied house may not typically rise to the level of theft of real property, the proof offered at the defendant’s trial was sufficient to support the jury’s verdict finding her guilty of the offense.  The Court stressed the defendant not only occupied the real property, but also completely locked and barred others access to the property, posted signs around the property advising others to keep out, and filed paperwork purporting to take legal title to the property. 

To read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Tabitha Gentry (AKA Abka Re Bay), authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.