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State v. Sprunger

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

March 9, 2015


Session October 9, 2014

Page 483

Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Trial Court is Reversed, Forfeiture Vacated, and Remanded. Appeal from the Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, Appeal from the Chancery Court for Cumberland County. No. 2010-CH-389. Ronald Thurman, Judge.

Judgment of the Trial Court is Reversed, Forfeiture Vacated, and Remanded.

Benjamin K. Raybin, Nashville, Tennessee, for the respondent/appellant, Charles D. Sprunger.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Joseph E. Whalen, Acting Solicitor General; and Kyle Hixson, Assistant Attorney General for the petitioner/appellee, the State of Tennessee.

HOLLY KIRBY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SHARON G. LEE, C.J., and CORNELIA A. CLARK, GARY R. WADE, and JEFFREY S. BIVINS, JJ., joined.



Page 484

This appeal challenges the civil forfeiture of the appellant's house after he was convicted of possessing child pornography on his home computer. We hold that, in forfeiture proceedings, the seizing authority

Page 485

is required to present affirmative proof that it complied with both the procedural and the substantive provisions of the applicable forfeiture statutes. In accord with prior decisions of this Court, we also hold that both the procedural and the substantive provisions of the forfeiture statutes must be strictly construed. The State in this case failed to show that it complied with the procedural requirements in the forfeiture statutes. Therefore, we vacate the forfeiture.


Facts and Proceedings Below

Charles D. Sprunger owned his home on Peavine Road in Cumberland County, Tennessee, near Crossville. Mr. Sprunger operated a lawn care business and maintained his business files on a desktop computer kept in his home.

In early July 2008, Mr. Sprunger contacted a computer technician in Crossville, Tennessee; he believed that his desktop computer had a virus and needed help retrieving his business records from it. On July 8, 2008, Mr. Sprunger dropped the computer off at the technician's repair shop. After Mr. Sprunger left, the technician discovered on the computer numerous images of " prepubescent, minor girls engaged in either sexually suggestive poses or in sex acts with adults," waiting to be burned to a compact disc. The technician immediately contacted local law enforcement authorities.

After reviewing the illicit images on Mr. Sprunger's computer, John Haynes, a detective with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, seized the computer and obtained a search warrant for Mr. Sprunger's home. The same day, Detective Haynes executed the search warrant and thoroughly searched Mr. Sprunger's house. It appeared that Mr. Sprunger had kept the computer in an upstairs loft room that was equipped with electricity and an internet connection. Law enforcement officers who executed the search found the outside " skin" of the desktop[1] in the home but found no illegal photographic images there. No other action was taken against Mr. Sprunger at that time.

Approximately ten months later, on May 19, 2009, Detective Haynes appeared before a Cumberland County Criminal Court judge to obtain a forfeiture warrant for Mr. Sprunger's home.[2] The forfeiture warrant that issued stated that Mr. Sprunger's real property was subject to forfeiture under Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1008,[3] based on his violation of Section 39-17-1004.[4] The forfeiture warrant recited that Detective Haynes gave the criminal court judge " Proof by Affidavit" on probable cause for the forfeiture warrant. The appellate record does not include such an affidavit, nor does it include any account of Detective Haynes's

Page 486

appearance before the criminal court judge.

The next day, forfeiture warrant in hand, Detective Haynes filed a document entitled " Abstract of Suit Notice of Lien Lis Pendens " with the Cumberland County Register of Deeds.[5] The filing indicated that the State had filed the forfeiture warrant and claimed a lien lis pendens on Mr. Sprunger's real property.[6] In support, it cited Mr. Sprunger's alleged violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1004, i.e., selling and distributing child pornography.[7]

A couple of months later, in July 2009, Mr. Sprunger was indicted for violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1003,[8] sexual exploitation of a minor by knowingly possessing over 100 images of child pornography. He was not indicted for the offense listed on the forfeiture warrant or on the other filings, namely, violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1004, the sale and distribution of child pornography

Over a month after that, on August 29, 2009, Mr. Sprunger received a " Notice of Property Seizure and Forfeiture of Conveyances," notifying him that his residence had been seized. The seizure notice form indicated that Mr. Sprunger's property was subject to seizure pursuant to " Category

Page 487

IV: Other," with " (TCA § 39-17-1008)" typed into the corresponding blank space. The form listed " Investigator John Haynes" as the " Agent/Giver," and it was signed by Detective Haynes. The portion of the form certifying that the Agent/Giver had delivered notice of the seizure to the property owner was left blank. The form was signed by Mr. Sprunger, acknowledging receipt of the seizure notice.

Notably, the seizure notice form includes several boxes for the Agent/Giver to check for instructions to the owner of the seized property on how to contest the seizure. The instructions to the property owner vary depending on the " category" of the offense that is the basis for the seizure. The seizure notice form Mr. Sprunger received indicated that his property was seized under Category IV. This category informed Mr. Sprunger that he should: " Refer to instructions provided by seizing agency for filing a claim on the above property." The record includes no such instructions or other documents accompanying the seizure notice form.

In August 2010, a jury found Mr. Sprunger guilty of the Class B felony of sexual exploitation of a minor under Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1003, the knowing possession of over 100 images of child pornography. For his conviction, Mr. Sprunger was sentenced to eight years in prison, to be served at 100%. The criminal court entered judgment on October 4, 2010.

That same day, the State filed a complaint for judicial forfeiture against Mr. Sprunger in the Chancery Court of Cumberland County. The complaint alleged that Mr. Sprunger had been convicted of " the offense outlined in Tennessee Code Annotated 39-17-103 [sic], et seq.," and that he also " engaged in sexual activity in violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1004." [9] The complaint states that, " pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated 39-17-408 [sic][10] the real property . . . is subject to seizure and forfeiture by the State of Tennessee." It asserted that the State had perfected its statutory lien on Mr. Sprunger's real property by filing the lien lis pendens and that it had obtained a forfeiture warrant. The Complaint acknowledged that no hearing had been held on the seizure of Mr. Sprunger's property.

The Complaint named Mr. Sprunger's mortgage lender as an additional defendant and noted that foreclosure proceedings were already underway. [11] It asked the trial court to enjoin the mortgage lender from disbursing to Mr. Sprunger any excess proceeds from the anticipated foreclosure sale of his property.[12]

Page 488

In response to the Complaint for forfeiture, Mr. Sprunger, representing himself, sent the trial court a letter dated October 6, 2010. Most of the letter was devoted to arguing that he did not violate Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-17-1004, so the proceeds from the sale of his home should not be subjected to forfeiture.[13] However, in addition to this larger argument, Mr. Sprunger's letter informed the trial court that the State never gave him the required instructions on the procedure for contesting the forfeiture of his property:

The statutory lien for violation of 39-17-408 and that at or about the same time the lien lis pendens was filed, the State of Tennessee sought and received the forfeiture warrant that duly executed by [the criminal court judge] pursuant to 53-11-201. The office [sic] who delivered the receipt of seizure and forfeiture failed to provide me with instruction [sic] as stated under 53-11-201(a)(1)(B), the procedure by which recovery of the property may be sought.[14] I assert my rights under this provision have been violated. . . . I request pursuant to 53-11-201(d)(2) failure to carry the burden of proof shall operate as a bar to any forfeiture under the chapter this petition be denied. [sic]

(Footnote added).

On October 21, 2010, the trial court granted the State the requested injunctive relief, enjoining Mr. Sprunger's mortgage lender from distributing to Mr. Sprunger the excess proceeds from the anticipated foreclosure sale. The next day, on October 22, 2010, Mr. Sprunger's home was sold at auction for $85,000. After Mr. Sprunger's loan balance of $53,393.74, including interest and foreclosure fees, was paid to the mortgage lender, the remaining $31,606.26 in excess proceeds was deposited with the chancery court clerk and master, pending resolution of the forfeiture proceeding.

As of December 2010, the trial court had not yet held the trial on the Complaint for forfeiture. Still incarcerated, Mr. Sprunger wrote a second letter to the trial court and filed it with the court clerk. This letter noted that the " Proof of Affidavit" referenced in the forfeiture warrant was never provided to Mr. Sprunger, and asserted misuse of the forfeiture proceedings to prevent Mr. Sprunger from accessing

Page 489

funds to hire a lawyer to defend the criminal ...

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