Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning of “Illegal Sentence” Under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1

March 26, 2021

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that a sentence imposed in accordance with a statute that is later declared unconstitutional is voidable, not illegal, within the meaning of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1.

Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1 allows the defendant or the state to file a motion to correct an illegal sentence.  The Rule defines illegal sentences as those that are not authorized by law or that directly conflict with the law. Illegal sentences can be challenged at any time through several legal avenues. In contrast, sentences that are voidable were facially valid at the time they were imposed and may be challenged through the post-conviction process, which has a set time limit.

In the case on appeal, the petitioner pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with the intent to sell and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  The firearm offense was enhanced from a Class C felony to a Class B felony pursuant to the criminal gang enhancement statute.  A year after the petitioner pleaded guilty, the Court of Criminal Appeals declared the criminal gang enhancement statute unconstitutional.

Nearly three years following the intermediate appellate court’s decision, the petitioner filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in the trial court, arguing that the appellate court’s decision rendered his sentence illegal.  The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, holding that its earlier decision declaring the enhancement statute unconstitutional rendered the petitioner’s sentence void and illegal under Rule 36.1.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s order denying the petitioner’s motion, holding that the petitioner’s sentence was voidable, not void and illegal within the meaning of Rule 36.1.  The Court reasoned that, at the time the petitioner’s sentence was imposed, the criminal gang enhancement statute was presumptively constitutional.  His sentence was authorized by law and did not directly conflict with the law.  The Court additionally reaffirmed its prior holding enunciated its 1999 decision in Taylor v. State, which explicitly states that a sentence imposed in accordance with a statute in effect at the time of its imposition is not void merely because the statute is later declared unconstitutional.  Instead, such a sentence is voidable.  Because the petitioner’s sentence was voidable and not illegal, the Court held that the proper method for challenging his sentence was through a timely petition for post-conviction relief, not a motion to correct an illegal sentence.

The unanimous opinion in State v. Reid, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, may be read by visiting the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.