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State v. Christensen

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Jackson

April 7, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
JAMES ROBERT CHRISTENSEN, JR.

          June 2, 2016 Session Heard at Nashville

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Circuit Court for Tipton County No. 7799 Joseph H. Walker III, Judge

         James Robert Christensen, Jr., ("the Defendant") was convicted by a jury of resisting arrest, promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine, initiating the manufacture of methamphetamine, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. Prior to trial, the Defendant moved to suppress evidence obtained through what he claimed was an illegal search. The trial court denied the Defendant's motion and also denied the Defendant's motion seeking an interlocutory appeal. On direct appeal following trial, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgments, including the trial court's ruling on the suppression issue. We granted the Defendant's application for permission to appeal in order to address the legality of the police officers' warrantless entry onto the curtilage of the Defendant's residence. We hold that the officers' entry onto the Defendant's property was constitutionally permissible in spite of the posted "No Trespassing" signs near the Defendant's unobstructed driveway. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Affirmed

          Charles A. Brasfield (at trial and on appeal) and Amber G. Shaw (at trial), Covington, Tennessee, for the appellant, James Robert Christensen, Jr.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Rachel E. Willis, Senior Counsel; Caitlin Smith, Assistant Attorney General; D. Michael Dunavant, District Attorney General; and James Walter Freeland, Jr., Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, the State of Tennessee.

          Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Cornelia A. Clark and Holly Kirby, JJ., joined. Sharon G. Lee, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Roger A. Page, J., not participating.

          OPINION

          JEFFREY S. BIVINS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In August 2013, two law enforcement officers drove down the Defendant's unobstructed driveway, parked near his residence, and walked up to the Defendant's front porch. The Defendant opened his front door, stepped onto his porch, and closed and locked the front door behind him. After the Defendant opened his door, the officers smelled the odor of methamphetamine being manufactured. They asked the Defendant for consent to enter his residence, but the Defendant refused to give consent. One of the officers then forced open the front door, while the other officer detained the Defendant. Inside the residence, the entering officer discovered an active methamphetamine lab, along with several inactive labs, various items commonly associated with the manufacture of methamphetamine, and several guns. The Defendant subsequently was indicted on one count each of resisting arrest, promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine, and initiating the manufacture of methamphetamine, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

         Prior to trial, the Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the evidence had been seized as the result of an unlawful search because he had posted "No Trespassing" signs near his driveway. The Defendant asserted that the officers' entry onto his property without a warrant violated both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion. The Defendant then filed a motion for interlocutory appeal, which the trial court also denied. Accordingly, the Defendant proceeded to a jury trial, and he was convicted as charged. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the Defendant's convictions and sentences. State v. Christensen, No. W2014-00931-CCA-R3-CD, 2015 WL 2330185, at *11 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 14, 2015).[1]

         Before this Court, the Defendant challenges only the denial of his motion to suppress. We summarize below the relevant proof adduced at the suppression hearing and the trial.[2]

         On August 3, 2013, Investigators Michael Green and Brent Chunn, narcotics investigators for the Tipton County Sheriff's Office, went to a residence on Beaver Creek Lane in Tipton County after receiving information regarding a pseudoephedrine purchase at a Kroger by Mariah Davis. They also received information from an informant named Kyle Wolfe regarding an individual named Cody Gatlin, who was in a relationship with Ms. Davis. Investigator Green was familiar with Mr. Gatlin "through [his] law enforcement career."

         At this residence, the investigators spoke with Ms. Davis, Mr. Gatlin, and John Harkness.[3] The investigators first spoke with Ms. Davis and questioned her about her pseudoephedrine purchase. Initially, she told the investigators that she had taken the medicine to her grandmother's house in Mason. The investigators then asked if Mr. Gatlin was home. While Mr. Gatlin was not initially present, he eventually walked over from the Defendant's residence next door, about forty to fifty feet away. During this time, Investigator Green observed the Defendant, over at his residence, looking "out [his] screen door over to where [they] were."

         When the investigators asked Mr. Gatlin about the pseudoephedrine purchase, he replied that he had taken the pills next door to the Defendant, who was in the process of using them to make methamphetamine. At that point, the investigators backed down Mr. Harkness' driveway and drove thirty to forty feet to the Defendant's driveway next door. The investigators then drove down the Defendant's driveway and parked near the Defendant's trailer home.

         Investigator Green described the Defendant's driveway as being gravel and approximately sixty to seventy yards long, with a sign near the roadway that said "no spraying." He did not recall, however, seeing a "No Trespassing" sign. Investigator Chunn did not recall seeing any posted signs when they entered the Defendant's property. Because it was summertime, the grass was very tall. Investigator Green estimated that the grass "would come up probably to my chin, and I'm six three."

         As the officers walked up to the Defendant's front porch, the Defendant, holding a cane, opened the door and walked out to meet them. As soon as the Defendant opened the door, both investigators smelled an overwhelming odor associated with the manufacture of methamphetamine, even though the Defendant was several feet from the investigators at the time. Investigator Green explained that the smell differed from methamphetamine in its finished product state, in that

[w]hen the chemical reaction is actually taking place, your smells are louder, you know. And at the finished product you've basically just got a powder there that maybe if you open a bag you'll get a hit [sic] of starter fluid or something, but nothing like it is when it's being manufactured.

         From his training with methamphetamine, Investigator Green knew that methamphetamine labs were "very volatile, " in that they could catch on fire quickly.

         As the investigators explained to the Defendant why they were there, the Defendant denied any illegal activity. The investigators asked for consent to enter the residence because the Defendant initially seemed cooperative, and, according to Investigator Green, he "would much rather have consent than . . . just have to kick a door in." When the Defendant denied consent, however, the investigators decided to enter the trailer "[d]ue to . . . exigent circumstances." According to Investigator Green, there was no time to obtain a search warrant because

Methamphetamine is basically, it's starter fluid, ammonium nitrate. It's a bomb in a bottle. It builds up pressure in a bottle. If you're not there to release that pressure, it's going to blow out, blow up, whatever you want to call it. So exigent circumstances, it's I don't have time to go get a search warrant. I've got to get in that house and make it safe right now. If I wait, it's going to blow up on us.

         Investigator Chunn forced open the locked front door to the residence and entered to "make sure no one else was inside, " while Investigator Green attempted to detain the Defendant. Investigator Green and the Defendant engaged in a struggle, and Investigator Chunn, after "clear[ing] the residence, " stepped back outside to assist in apprehending the Defendant. While Investigator Green struggled to handcuff the Defendant, the Defendant called for "Bear, " which Investigator Green later learned was a dog. The Defendant also screamed for his mother, who was in the other trailer on the property, to call 1-800-THE-FIRM.[4]

         Investigator Green confirmed that the Defendant probably told him at some point to get off his property but stated that it was after Investigator Green attempted to detain him. Investigator Chunn recalled that, when they arrived on the Defendant's property, the Defendant asked the officers some type of question as to why they were there, but he did not recall the Defendant telling them to get off his property at that point.

         At approximately the same time they had detained the Defendant, the patrol deputies arrived, and Investigator Green had the Defendant sit down and provided him some water. At that time, the Defendant said, "It's in the freezer. It's in the freezer." Investigator Green then yelled to Investigator Chunn, who was inside the residence with the other officers, that the lab was located in the freezer. Investigator Chunn brought the active lab outside, and at some point, the officers had to relieve pressure in the bottle.

         Upon entering the Defendant's residence, Investigator Green found the house to be "very unkept." Additionally, he observed the following:

When I entered I noticed there was a bolt action 410 pistol right at the door, a 410 shotgun and a rifle on the couch. . . . And there was - Investigator Chunn had located the active meth lab and took it out, and then we saw remnants of, you know, older cooks, several cans of empty Coleman fuel, and then we located the ten separate one-pot labs in the freezer.

         Investigator Green clarified at trial that the pistol at the door actually was a 410 shotgun that had been sawed off. The sawed-off shotgun was loaded with two or three rounds. The other 410 shotgun had a laser on the barrel. Investigator Green believed the Defendant "intended to go armed" even though the guns were inside the locked residence.

         Investigator Chunn confirmed that the active methamphetamine lab was found in the refrigerator freezer. He noted that it was uncommon to find an active lab in the freezer but that the Defendant told them later in a statement that he placed the lab in the freezer "to stop the reaction process so he would be able to restart the lab at a later date or sometime later." Investigator Chunn estimated that it takes approximately one to four hours to manufacture methamphetamine using the "shake and bake" method. He could not say, however, how close the active lab was to completing the manufacturing process when they found it at the Defendant's residence.

         The officers found ten "already cooked off" labs located in a deep freezer inside the residence. The officers also found:

one pound of drain opener or lye; a 32-ounce bottle of drain opener liquid; four empty Coleman cans; one-half gallon of Coleman; two jars with Coleman fuel; . . . eight [hydrochloric acid] generators; a bag of live trash; a bag of Epsom salt; and the empty box of pseudoephedrine, the box itself that had just been purchased.

         Investigator Chunn identified a picture of the bathtub in the master bathroom, which contained "a bag of dog food with empty, numerous empty bottles that were previous methamphetamine labs."

         The officers wanted to leave the Defendant's residence as quickly as possible because of its condition. They requested a methamphetamine task force clean-up truck, which arrived at the scene and "dismantled [the active lab] and took away all the hazardous materials." Investigator Chunn confirmed that the Defendant's residence was quarantined, meaning that it was considered unsuitable for habitation given that it had been contaminated with methamphetamine.

         Tammy Atkins testified that she knew the Defendant through her church. She regularly traveled through the local neighborhoods "witnessing" and kept a journal of her experiences. On July 13, 2013, Ms. Atkins was on Beaver Creek Road but was not supposed to go on properties with "No Trespassing" signs. She observed that the Defendant's property had several "No Trespassing" signs posted, despite the high grass. Ms. Atkins identified several of the Defendant's "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs in photographs that were admitted into evidence.

         The Defendant testified that he now lived in his mother's residence, which is on the same property and next door to the residence where he was living on August 3, 2013. The Defendant identified a photograph of a "No Trespassing" sign which he stated was at the beginning of the driveway onto the property, and this photograph was admitted into evidence. The Defendant stated that the property was posted with four or five such signs.

         The Defendant testified that, when he looked outside and saw the officers at Mr. Gatlin's father's residence, he shut and locked his front door and "exited out the back door, walked around and stood on the front porch." He explained that he locked his front door from the inside, so when he was standing on the front porch, he had no immediate access to get inside the front door.

         The Defendant testified that the following occurred when the officers arrived on his property:

Well, I saw them get out of the vehicle and come walking up to me. And I asked them, Could I help you? I don't know if you've noticed this or not, but you passed "no trespassing" signs to get here. If you don't have a search warrant, you need to leave my property. What you're doing is unconstitutional.

         The officers asked for permission to enter his residence, which he denied and told them to leave the property. At that time, Investigator Green told the Defendant that he was going to detain the Defendant. The Defendant placed his arms out but asked that he not be handcuffed behind his back because of his left arm being dislocated and broken so many times. According to the Defendant, Investigator Chunn said, "oh we're breaking your arm. We're handcuffing you behind your back." When the Defendant resisted, "[t]hey started punching [him] and kicking [him] and choking [him]." He denied that he "freaked out" during the struggle due to being under the influence of methamphetamine. Rather, he asserted that he was scared of the pain the officers were going to inflict by breaking his arm.

         A video recording made by the "dash cam" of one of the reporting patrol cars was admitted into evidence and established that the Defendant's driveway was not blocked by any gates or other physical obstructions.

         At the conclusion of the proof at trial, the jury deliberated and convicted the Defendant of all charged offenses. The trial court subsequently sentenced the Defendant to an effective sentence of three years' incarceration, followed by eight years suspended to supervised probation. On direct appeal, the Defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress and that there was insufficient evidence to support his firearms convictions. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the Defendant's convictions and sentences. Christensen, 2015 WL 2330185, at *11. Judge John Everett Williams filed a separate opinion, concluding that, by posting "No Trespassing" signs, the Defendant had revoked any implied consent for the officers to enter his property without a warrant. Id. at *11 (Williams, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). We subsequently granted the Defendant's application for permission to appeal on the suppression issue. In our Order granting the application, we noted our particular interest in "(1) the effect, if any, of the 'unlicensed physical intrusion' definition of a search as articulated in Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409 (2013); and (2) if the officers' entry into the curtilage of [the Defendant's] home constituted a search, whether it was supported by probable cause and the existence of exigent circumstances."

         Standard ...


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