Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Forgery Convictions and Sentences in Multi-Defendant Case

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the forgery convictions and sentences of five defendants that collectively filed more than 100 fraudulent financing statements on the Secretary of State’s website.

Defendants Ronald Lyons, James Michael Usinger, Lee Harold Cromwell, Austin Gary Cooper, and Christopher Alan Hauser were accused of weaponizing a system that allows secured creditors to give notice of their security interest in debtors’ property through filing financing statements on the Secretary of State’s website.  The defendants collectively filed more than 100 bogus financing statements regarding over forty Tennessee residents.  The financing statements falsely claimed liens for the defendants’ alleged security interest in the victims’ property as collateral for millions of dollars in fictitious debt.

The defendants were named in a multi-count indictment that charged them with 102 counts of filing a lien without a reasonable basis, a Class E felony, and 102 counts of forgery of at least $250,000, a Class A felony.  They were tried together in a jury trial and were found guilty as charged on all counts.  The trial court subsequently sentenced the defendants to effective sentences ranging from twenty to fifty years.  On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences.

The defendants sought permission to appeal in the Tennessee Supreme Court.  The Court granted permission to appeal solely on the issue of whether the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions for forgery under Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-14-114.  Upon review, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the defendants’ conduct fit within the statutory definition of forgery.  A majority of the Court also concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the apparent value associated with the fraudulent financing statements filed by the defendants was at least $250,000.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgments of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Justices Holly Kirby and Sarah Campbell dissented from the decision to affirm sentencing the defendants for a Class A felony. The dissent stated that the laws on valuing a forgery required the State to show the forged documents had an apparent “fair market value” of at least $250,000.  At trial, the State’s witness admitted the financing statements the defendants forged are just notice documents that cannot be used to obtain anything of value. Because they had no apparent “fair market value,” the dissent concluded that the defendants should receive a lesser sentence, for a Class E felony.

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. Ronald Lyons, et al., authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, and the separate opinion authored by Justice Holly Kirby, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.