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Moncier v. Harris

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

March 10, 2017


          Session December 13, 2016

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Knox County No. 190527-2 Clarence E. Pridemore, Jr., Chancellor

         This appeal involves a request for access to examine records under Tennessee Code Annotated section 10-7-505 in which the plaintiff sought the release of civil forfeiture documents from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The trial court held that the plaintiff did not show sufficient cause for release of the sought after documents in a non-redacted format. We find that the issue has become moot owing to the legislative enactment of 2016 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Chapter 722, § 5. Accordingly, we vacate the trial court's judgment and dismiss this case.

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

          Herbert S. Moncier, Knoxville, Tennessee, appellant pro se.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General & Reporter, Andree S. Blumstein, Solicitor General, and Janet M. Kleinfelter, Deputy Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Nina Harris, Joseph Bartlett, and William Gibbons.

          John W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., and D. Michael Swiney, C.J., joined.



         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 20, 2015, Plaintiff Herbert S. Moncier ("Attorney") filed an official request with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security's ("TDOSHS") Legal Division - East ("the Department") to inspect any case files for which forfeiture warrants had been received since January 1, 2015. Attorney asserted this claim under Tennessee Code Annotated section 10-7-503 (2016), Tennessee's Public Disclosure Act. Paragraph (a) of said section provides:

All state, county and municipal records . . ., except any public documents authorized to be destroyed by the county public records commission in accordance with § 10-7-404, shall at all times, during business hours, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a). Attorney contends that Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-33-204(g) holds that notice of seizures are public records. He asserts the trial court's ruling addressed only forfeiture warrants.

         Due to the large number of files pertaining to the request (1, 790 total), the Department notified Attorney that they would send him the files in installments of fifty at a time. The Department complied by sending the first installment on August 10, 2015. On August 11, 2015, the Department's staff attorney, Nina Harris, notified Attorney that address information had been removed from the notices of seizure and forfeiture warrants in compliance with Tennessee's Uniform Motor Vehicle Record Disclosure Act ("UMVRDA"), codified at Tennessee Code Annotated sections 55-25-101 to -112. Attorney expanded his request on August 17, 2015, asking for case-management sheets relating to each case file. The Department informed Attorney that this information was already included in the first installment and was to be included in future installments. The Department further explained that certain personal information, including addresses, would be redacted from all files sent to Attorney if it was obtained from motor-vehicle records under Tennessee's UMVRDA and under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act ("DPPA"), codified at 18 U.S.C. sections 2721 to -25.

         Under Tennessee Code Annotated sections 55-6-204(a), (b) and (e), the Department maintains copies of records of licenses, applications and denials for licenses, the names of licensees who had licenses suspended or revoked, and accident reports, court records for vehicle-related convictions and driver education completion certificates. In every application for a license, the applicant is required to submit personal information including full name, date of birth, country of residence, residence address and other information as required to determine eligibility. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-321. The Department maintains a database within which the personal information of license-holders and applicants is stored. Similarly, the Department of Revenue maintains a vehicle registration database in accordance with statutes concerning motor vehicle title and registration. Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 55-1-101 to -110.

         Civil forfeiture proceedings under Tennessee law are governed by Tennessee Code Annotated sections 40-33-201 to -215. Officers are required to prepare and deliver a "Notice of Seizure" receipt to persons in possession of property that is seized. Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-33-203 requires a Notice of Seizure to include the following:

(1) A general description of the property seized and, if the property is money, the amount seized;
(2) The date the property was seized and the date the notice of seizure was given to the person in possession of the seized property;
(3) The vehicle identification number (VIN) if the property seized is a motor vehicle;
(4) The reason the seizing officer believes the property is subject to seizure and forfeiture;
(5) The procedure by which recovery of the property may be sought, including any time periods during which a claim for recovery must be submitted; and
(6) The consequences that will attach if no claim for recovery is filed within the applicable time period.

         Notices of Seizures also include, by necessity, the addresses of the person whose property was seized.

         Officers are required to apply for a forfeiture warrant within five days of a seizure in which the owner was arrested. If the owner was not arrested, "the officer making the seizure shall present to the court, at the date and time specified on the notice of forfeiture warrant hearing, the application for a forfeiture warrant, the affidavit in support, the notice of seizure, and the notice of forfeiture warrant hearing." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-204(b)(3). If a forfeiture warrant is granted by the judge, then "within seven (7) working days, [the officer shall] send the warrant, a copy of the affidavit and the notice of seizure to the applicable agency." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-204(g). The case files requested by Attorney contain these Notices of Seizure, forfeiture warrants and other related documents.

         Citizens may claim a right to property seized under Tennessee's civil forfeiture statutes by filing a claim in writing requesting a hearing and providing the person's interest in the property within thirty (30) days of receiving the forfeiture warrant. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-206(a). Attorney's initial request to the Department appears to be in the interest of obtaining address information for persons whose ...

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