Tennessee Supreme Court Determines Warrantless Search of Residence was Unlawful and Orders Dismissal of Convictions

February 23, 2021

In a unanimous opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court held the inevitable discovery rule, an exception to the exclusionary rule that applies when tainted evidence would have been inevitably discovered regardless of police misconduct, does not apply to a case when law enforcement merely “could have” obtained evidence through a search warrant or other lawful means. The Court further concluded the search of the Defendant’s home was illegal because her consent was not freely and voluntarily given. The Court ruled that evidence obtained during the illegal search was not admissible, and the defendant’s convictions must be dismissed.

In this case, the White County Sheriff’s office asked its counterpart in Warren County for assistance in looking for Mr. Ronald Dishman, who had several outstanding warrants. Warren County deputies were told that Mr. Dishman may be armed and was located at a house owned by defendant Samantha Grissom Scott. Shortly thereafter, nine deputies approached Ms. Scott’s home and reported seeing a male on the porch. He entered the house after seeing the deputies. Law enforcement then surrounded the house with weapons drawn. For about one-half hour, during which Ms. Scott testified that she was having a panic attack, police yelled through loudspeakers for occupants to come out of the house. Ms. Scott finally appeared. She further testified that she was put on her knees with guns pointed at her, and officers requested permission to search her house, which she denied. She told them Mr. Dishman was not in the house. Later, a man identified as Mr. Scott Bell came out of the house. Deputies repeatedly requested permission from Ms. Scott to search the house and she continued to say no. Nearly an hour after the incident began, Ms. Scott gave permission to search the house for Mr. Dishman. He was not found, but drugs were seen and a search warrant was then obtained.

After she was charged, Ms. Scott filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the search, asserting her consent resulted from coercion and was not freely and voluntarily given. After the trial court denied the motion, she pleaded guilty to possession with the intent to deliver methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia but specifically reserved a certified question of law contesting the legality of the search. During the appeal, the state raised the inevitable discovery doctrine, arguing the drugs could have been discovered without Ms. Scott’s consent to search. In a split opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the appeal after concluding that the certified question of law is not dispositive of the case because the evidence would have been admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. Ms. Scott appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first addressed the inevitable discovery rule and whether the certified question is dispositive. The Court found the inevitable discovery rule is not merely that law enforcement could have found the evidence by other lawful means, but instead requires a higher standard that the evidence would have been discovered by proper legal means regardless of the illegal search. The Court concluded there was no evidence presented that law enforcement would have discovered the drugs without the search in question or that they would have obtained a search warrant if requested prior to entering the home.

The Court then reviewed the legality of the search itself. It determined exigent circumstances did not exist to justify the constructive seizure of the Defendant’s home. The Court reviewed the factors required for valid consent and, when considering the circumstances as a whole, determined Ms. Scott’s consent to search her home was not freely and voluntarily given.

As a result, the Court determined the evidence obtained during the unlawful search was tainted and inadmissible. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the holding of the Court of Criminal Appeals and dismissed Ms. Scott’s convictions.

To read the opinion in State v. Scott, authored by Justice Roger Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.