Tennessee Supreme Court Rules TBI Must Comply With Trial Court’s Expungement Order

May 27, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is bound by a trial court’s order expunging criminal charges and must comply even if the TBI disagrees with the order.

In 2015, the plaintiff, an unnamed citizen of McNairy County, Tennessee, negotiated a guilty plea agreement in the McNairy County Circuit Court. Under this court-approved agreement, if the plaintiff successfully completed four years of probation, the charges would be expunged. When expunged, a criminal charge is removed from all public records.

In February 2019, after the plaintiff completed his probation, he petitioned the circuit court for expungement of his records. The State of Tennessee, acting through an assistant district attorney general, agreed on behalf of the State for the plaintiff’s records to be expunged. The circuit court entered an agreed order directing that all public records relating to the offense, including any records held by a state agency, be destroyed. As required by statute, the TBI received a copy of the order, which became final thirty days after it was entered. Under another statute, the TBI had to remove any expunged records from the plaintiff’s criminal history within sixty days.

Later in 2019, the plaintiff learned the TBI did not remove the expunged records from his criminal history because the TBI determined the charges were ineligible for expungement. The plaintiff sued the TBI and TBI Director David Rausch in the Davidson County Chancery Court to require the TBI to comply with the expungement order. The chancery court first ruled that the TBI was not immune from suit as a governmental agency. Then the chancery court held that generally the TBI had to comply with an expungement order except if the evidence showed the records came within an exception for sexual offenses. The chancery court allowed the plaintiff to seek an appeal of this ruling before going further with the case. The Court of Appeals denied review, but the Tennessee Supreme Court granted review to decide under what circumstances, if any, the TBI may refuse to comply with a trial court’s final order of expungement.

On review, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the chancery court’s decision that the TBI could be sued based on a statutory waiver of sovereign immunity for suits seeking declaratory or injunctive relief in challenging illegal or unconstitutional governmental action. The Court then ruled that the TBI lacked authority to refuse to comply with the final expungement order. The Court reasoned that under the expungement statutes, the trial courts—not the TBI—decide whether an offense is eligible for expungement. The Court emphasized that nothing prevents a district attorney general from consulting with the TBI on expungements, and noted that the State may appeal or otherwise challenge an expungement order it believes to be unlawful. But here, the State agreed to entry of the expungement order, which became final after thirty days. Thus, the Court explained, the TBI was bound by the order and could not refuse to comply with it because state agencies lack the power to alter a judicial order, even one they deem to be incorrect.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court, granted the plaintiff’s motion for partial judgment on the pleadings, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. 

To read the opinion of the Court in Recipient of Final Expunction Order in McNairy County Circuit Court Case No. 3279 v. David B. Rausch, Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.