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Lockhart v. Commissioner of Tennessee Department of Safety

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 21, 2016

VERNON LOCKHART
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY

          Assigned on Briefs November 1, 2016

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 140472I Ben H. Cantrell, Senior Judge

         This appeal arises from a civil forfeiture. Vernon Lockhart ("Lockhart") was charged and later convicted on a number of criminal counts related to the distribution of large amounts of marijuana. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security ("the Department") declared as forfeited certain of Lockhart's properties alleged to be derived from illegal drug transactions. An Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ") found in favor of the Department by a preponderance of the evidence, a decision which was affirmed on appeal by the Chancery Court for Davidson County ("the Trial Court"). Lockhart appeals to this Court, arguing, in large part, that the evidence used against him should have been suppressed and that the ALJ and Trial Court erred by failing to conduct an analysis of his suppression issue independent of the resolution of that issue in the criminal court proceedings. We hold, inter alia, that the ALJ's order of forfeiture was supported by a preponderance of the evidence and that the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars Lockhart from re-litigating whether the evidence should have been suppressed as that issue has been resolved finally on appeal in his criminal proceedings. We affirm the judgment of the Trial Court upholding the ALJ's order declaring Lockhart's designated properties forfeited to the state.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Vernon Elliott Lockhart, pro se appellant.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, Grant C. Mullins, Assistant Attorney General, and, Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General, for the appellee, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Commissioner.

          D. Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which W. Neal McBrayer and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE

         Background

         The detailed history of Lockhart's criminal investigation and trial is set forth in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals opinion State v. Lockhart, No. M2013-01275-CCA-R3-CD, 2015 WL 5244672 (Tenn. Crim. App. September 8, 2015), perm. app. appeal denied Jan. 20, 2016. Lockhart was convicted at the trial court level of 14 counts, three of which for money laundering were overturned on appeal. Lockhart's most ardent and persistent argument, both in the criminal matter and in this civil forfeiture matter now before us, is that the evidence used against him was gathered unlawfully and should be suppressed. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in Lockhart, among other things, disagreed with Lockhart's suppression-based arguments while affirming most of Lockhart's convictions.

         An asset forfeiture hearing was held in March 2013. The ALJ subsequently entered an order which stated, in part, as follows:

1. Beginning in January 2006, the 18th and 20th Judicial District Drug Task Forces along with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) conducted an investigation of Claimant, along with several other individuals, through the use of wiretaps, for drug trafficking of large amounts of marijuana.
2. The investigation revealed that Claimant devised and conducted an elaborate operation wherein he, or one of his co-conspirators, would travel across the country to purchase large quantities of marijuana and bring it back to Nashville for resell.
3. As a part of this elaborate operation, Claimant used several companies to conceal and/or launder the money he made through his illegal drug transactions. These companies were Pyramid Engineering, Reconstruction Management Group, VEL Properties and VEL Trucking, LLC.
4. The investigation culminated in the issuance of numerous search warrants
5. On March 9, 2009, a 2005 GMC Sierra Engineering truck pulling a gooseneck trailer and driven by Cheyenne Davis was stopped by the Tennessee Highway Patrol for a traffic violation. A K-9 narcotic officer alerted to the truck. The truck and trailer were searched and the trailer was cut open. It was found to contain approximately 550 pounds of marijuana.
6. Inside the truck the officers found a TomTom GPS device and an Aspire I Acer laptop with accessories along with several telephones. These items were seized.
7. After the search of the truck and trailer, the officers began executing search warrants on the various properties identified as the stash houses owned by the claimant.
8. Claimant also owned several homes that were used as "stash houses" to hide the large quantities of marijuana.
9. The main location for storing the marijuana was a home, owned by VEL Properties, located at 6960 Old Hickory Boulevard, Nashville, Tennessee (6960 OHB). Other properties known as "201 Cude Lane" and "Pulley Road aka 'The Country'", along with his residence at 5225 Rustic Way, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee were also used as "stash houses".
10. The search warrant executed on Claimant's residence at 5225 Rustic Way, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee yielded ledgers that were discovered in the home. These ledgers were determined by officers to reflect transactions representing the sale of 5, 702 pounds of marijuana and income from those sales in the amount of Two million eight hundred thirty four thousand eight hundred twenty seven dollars ($2, 834, 827.00).
11. As a result of the search of the Claimant's home, numerous items were seized. Among those items were an outdoor surveillance system, a 1999 Chevrolet SK1 pickup truck containing 10 pounds of marijuana, furniture from the dining room, living room, kitchen, and master bedroom, tools and golf clubs. The officers also discovered a hidden $154, 000.00 in U.S. currency hidden in the home.
12. Claimant was indicted and eventually convicted of fourteen (14) felony counts. (The factual allegations in the indictments and Claimant's convictions are found at exhibits 2 A -3B of the technical record and incorporated herein in their entirety by reference). Claimant was ...

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