On a remote piece of property in the tiny, unincorporated town of Culleoka, the entire scope of Tennessee evidentiary law changed and criminal practitioners are still grappling with the aftermath. On a spring day in April 2012, law enforcement officers, acting on information provided by a criminal informant, served a search warrant on property belonging to Christopher Tuttle. Their search warrant yielded recovery of eight pounds of marijuana, a half ounce of cocaine, some firearms and just under $1.2 million in cash. Officers intended to use the contraband to prove that Tuttle was involved in a larger narcotics conspiracy and was trafficking in over 600 pounds of marijuana each week.
Tuttle’s attorneys, Kevin Latta and John Colley of Columbia, filed a motion to suppress the government’s search warrant alleging there were multiple problems with the warrant itself. One major issue for the state involved latitude and longitude coordinates contained in the search warrant that the defense showed did not truly connect to the Tuttle home. The agents involved used a cellphone ping on the cellphone of another alleged conspirator and stated to the magistrate in their warrant application that the ping placed the conspirator on the Tuttle property. A defense expert in GPS coordinates, however, testified that the coordinates the government put in their warrant application landed on a dirt road that was approximately 50 feet from another address (and not the address listed on the warrant as the place to be searched).
Despite this compelling proof the trial court denied the defense suppression motion. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court holding the search warrant was invalid. This is where the Tuttle case gets very interesting. Some backstory is necessary here – Tennessee had long followed what is known as the Aguillar-Spinelli test for verifying information provided by criminal informants as a basis for a search warrant. Under Aguillar- Spinelli (which are the names of two U.S. Supreme Court cases from the 1960s), the government must show that a criminal informant has both a basis of knowledge as well as veracity and credibility. In short, the government has to show how the informant knows what he knows and why the trial court should believe him. The U.S. Supreme Court actually superseded the Aguillar- Spinelli test in 1983 in a case styled Illinois v. Gates and held that a totality of the circumstances test was to be applied to trial court evaluation of search warrants based on criminal informants. A totality test made it easier for the government’s search warrants to be upheld by trial courts when they were based on criminal informants. Yet, the Tennessee Supreme Court, finding that the protections of a person’s property from government search were stronger in the Tennessee Constitution than in the U.S. Constitution, declined to follow Gates in a major Tennessee case named Jacumin in 1989. Tuttle, in his appeal of the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress, fairly relied on the precedent in Jacumin and showed the appellate courts that the criminal informant’s statement could not be corroborated (think the veracity prong of the Aguillar-Spinelli test) and therefore, the search warrant was invalid.
It was at this point, that the Tennessee Supreme Court changed the rules on Tuttle and on every other potential criminal defendant in Tennessee. In State v. Tuttle, the court rejected their former decision in Jacumin and decided that Tennessee would now follow the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gates; a totality of the circumstances test would now apply to search warrants based on the statements of criminal informants. Finding that the totality test was, in fact, a sufficient test of probable cause, a finding specifically rejected by Jacumin, Justice Clark wrote for the majority that the Jacumin/ Aguillar-Spinelli factors were too rigid and often defied common sense. With the stroke of the court’s pen, it automatically became easier for Tennessee law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants.
Since the Tuttle decision in April 2017, criminal practitioners have been grappling with what happens next for their clients. This is the latest in a string of pro-law enforcement decisions issued by an increasingly conservative appellate bench in Tennessee. Certainly, the facts that there was significant proof that Tuttle was actively involved in a narcotics conspiracy, as well as the small fact that over a million dollars seized, would have to returned to Tuttle in the event of a reversal, did not help make good law. Now criminal practitioners have an even steeper uphill climb to show a trial court that government agents violated their clients’ rights under the federal Fourth Amendment or Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution. It is beyond question that law enforcement’s job in this area became easier; many criminal practitioners now feel that individual rights were eroded by the decision. It remains an open question whether or not the Tuttle decision has made any of us safer.