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State v. Sutton

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 19, 2017


          Session February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Lincoln County No. 2014-CR-135 Forest A. Durard, Jr., Judge

         Defendant, Bruce Wayne Sutton, pled guilty to attempted initiation of a process to manufacture methamphetamine and received a sentence of nine years and six months. As part of his plea agreement, Defendant reserved two certified questions of law pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 37(b)(2)(A) with regard to the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained during a warrantless search of a residence. Upon our review of the record and applicable authorities, we determine that based upon his disclaimer of interest in the property, Defendant was without standing to complain about the search. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Elizabeth A. Russell (on appeal), Franklin, Tennessee, and M. Wesley Hall IV (at hearing), Unionville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Bruce Wayne Sutton.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Brent C. Cherry, Senior Counsel; Robert Carter, District Attorney General; and Ann L. Filer, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Timothy L. Easter, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., and Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., joined.



         Factual and Procedural Background

         On June 19, 2013, officers with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department conducted a warrantless search of a residence on Village Park Drive in Fayetteville, Tennessee. As a result of evidence discovered during that search, Defendant was indicted by the Lincoln County Grand Jury of one count of initiating a process to manufacture methamphetamine, one count of promotion of methamphetamine manufacture, one count of possession of .5 grams or more of methamphetamine for sale, one count of possession of .5 grams or more of methamphetamine for delivery, and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.[1]

         The procedural history of this case is quite extensive and complicated given the fact that Defendant was represented by no less than four attorneys in the trial court, the case was continued numerous times, some documents were filed under different case numbers because of the superseding indictment, and Defendant filed multiple pro se motions relating to both this case and two other unrelated cases. For the sake of clarity, we will attempt to summarize the procedural history and hearing testimony with regard to only the issue presently before this Court under the certified questions of law, namely the suppression of evidence obtained from the search of the residence on Village Park Drive.

         On February 20, 2014, Defendant, represented by the Public Defender's Office, filed a motion to suppress the evidence from the search on the grounds that his wife's consent to search was invalidly obtained over Defendant's refusal. On April 3, 2014, retained counsel filed a motion to reinstate and resume the motion to suppress. This motion references a hearing that was commenced on March 4, 2014, during which Defendant supposedly withdrew his motion to suppress, but no transcript of that hearing appears in the record.[2] The trial court denied the motion to reinstate on May 20, 2014. After the issuance of the superseding indictment and the appointment of subsequent counsel, the trial court allowed Defendant to renew any previously filed motions, including the motion to suppress. On January 6, 2015, subsequent counsel filed a motion to suppress, contending that Defendant did not consent to the search and that his wife's consent was invalid. Subsequent counsel eventually withdrew and trial counsel was appointed. After Defendant filed a plethora of pro se motions while represented by counsel, the trial court allowed Defendant to represent himself over the objection of the State, appointing trial counsel as advisory counsel. An evidentiary hearing was held on the motion to suppress on December 18, 2015.[3]

         At the evidentiary hearing, Detective Mike Pitts testified that he was a narcotics investigator with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. Detective Pitts noticed Defendant's name on a list of pseudoephedrine purchases. The list indicated two addresses for Defendant, one in Hamilton County and one on Village Park Drive in Lincoln County. Detective Pitts learned that Defendant had prior methamphetamine-related charges. The report also indicated that Heather Hill[4] resided at the Village Park address. Detective Pitts stated that he was not aware of Ms. Hill's relationship with Defendant at the time.

         Detective Pitts went to the residence on Village Park Drive to conduct a knock and talk "around lunchtime" on June 19, 2013. As Detective Pitts parked his vehicle, Ms. Hill exited the front door of the residence and walked toward her vehicle parked in the driveway; Detective Pitts observed a child inside of the vehicle. Detective Pitts identified himself and asked if Defendant was there. Ms. Hill indicated that Defendant was inside the house, and Detective Pitts asked her to bring him outside. Defendant came outside and spoke to Detective Pitts. Detective Pitts identified himself, explained why he was there, and asked for consent to search the residence. According to Detective Pitts, Defendant responded that "he could not consent to a search of the residence, due to the fact it was not his residence to allow [Detective Pitts] to search." Because Defendant "also provided information that there could possibly be items inside the residence to make meth with, " Detective Pitts sought consent to search from Ms. Hill. Ms. Hill agreed and signed a consent to search form, which was entered into evidence.

         Detective Pitts then entered the residence with Ms. Hill, Defendant, and Deputy Patrick Murdock, who had arrived at the residence a few minutes after Detective Pitts. Detective Pitts was told that no one else was in the residence. Defendant and Ms. Hill remained in the living room with Deputy Murdock. Detective Pitts entered the master bedroom and discovered a man sitting on the bed; the man was later determined to be Mark Kindred, who was charged as a codefendant. Detective Pitts brought Mr. Kindred into the living room and then returned to search the bedroom because he smelled "an odor of chemicals . . . close to the bed." Detective Pitts discovered the evidence at issue in the master bedroom and bathroom, including lithium batteries, wet coffee filters with a "fuel smell, " and "a jar that contained a liquid that you could see methamphetamine sunk to the bottom in." Ms. Hill denied having ever seen those items before and denied any knowledge of methamphetamine being produced in the house. As Defendant was being arrested and escorted out of the house, he "sarcastically" thanked Ms. Hill for consenting to the search and stated that "she was putting him back in prison."

         During cross-examination, Defendant attempted to enter his marriage certificate into evidence to show that Ms. Hill was his wife and that her name was in fact Heather Sutton. Detective Pitts testified that he reviewed the report on pseudoephedrine purchases for people in Lincoln County who make multiple purchases. The report listed the person's name, driver's license number, date of birth, and known associated addresses. Detective Pitts testified that he went to the Village Park address to speak to Defendant because that was the only listed address in Lincoln County. Defendant entered the arrest warrant into evidence which listed his address as the residence on Village Park Drive. Detective Pitts agreed that he obtained that information from Defendant's driver's license after he was arrested. Detective Pitts testified that Defendant was not under arrest at the time Ms. Hill signed the consent form and the officers conducted the search. Detective Pitts denied threatening Ms. Hill in order to obtain her consent to search. Detective Pitts agreed that there were no exigent circumstances. Detective Pitts testified that the evidence was ultimately destroyed due to its volatility.

         When Defendant attempted to ask Detective Pitts about the presence of his belongings inside the house, such as male clothing or photographs, the State objected to the question being irrelevant and outside the scope of the consent issue. The trial court overruled the objection as follows:

Well, you know, that kind of gets to a standing issue. I think it's relevant whether it's his house or not.
Here's the problem. You've got - - whether it's your house or not, it's called the doctrine of disclaimer.
And that's a big problem in this case.

         Deputy Patrick Murdock testified that in June of 2013, he worked as a canine handler with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. On June 19, 2013, Deputy Murdock went to the Village Park residence with his canine to assist Detective Pitts. When Deputy Murdock arrived, Detective Pitts was in the yard and Defendant was "about to come out, or he might have already been on the porch." Ms. Hill was also present; Deputy Murdock did not know her relationship to Defendant. Deputy Murdock did not observe anyone inside the vehicle in the driveway. Deputy Murdock's canine remained inside of his patrol vehicle.

         Deputy Murdock observed Detective Pitts talking to Defendant and asking for consent to search the house. As to Defendant's response, Deputy Murdock testified, "I remember he said that he couldn't give consent. And I believe he said that he maybe didn't live there. That for whatever reason, he couldn't give consent to search the house." Detective Pitts then went to Ms. Hill and obtained written consent to search the house while Deputy Murdock stood by Defendant on the porch. Deputy Murdock did not remember if Defendant said anything but described him as "looking in their direction, and kind of basically like kind of telling her, maybe without telling her, don't do this. I mean, his body language and, you know, what he was doing gave me the impression that he was trying to say don't sign it." The following colloquy then occurred:

[Prosecutor]: And to make sure I'm clear on your testimony. Did you hear what the [D]efendant told [Detective] Pitts, when [Detective] Pitts asked permission to search the house?
[Deputy Murdock]: He said that he couldn't give consent. I remember that.
[Prosecutor]: Did you say he could not give consent or he would not give consent?
[Deputy Murdock]: One of the - - I'm not sure.

         Deputy Murdock did not remember hearing Defendant explain to either himself or Detective Pitts who the house belonged ...

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