Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Sprunger v. Cumberland County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

July 27, 2017


          Session June 6, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Cumberland County No. 2015-CH-899 Ronald Thurman, Chancellor

         A homeowner was charged with knowingly possessing child pornography, and a forfeiture warrant was obtained to seize his house pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1008. The homeowner was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison, and his mortgage lender foreclosed upon his house. The State filed a complaint for judicial forfeiture in an effort to enjoin the mortgage lender from disbursing any excess proceeds from the foreclosure sale to the former homeowner. The trial court granted the State the relief it requested. On appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the forfeiture of the excess proceeds because the seizing officer had failed to follow several procedural requirements in seizing the house, including giving the homeowner notice about how to contest the seizure. The former homeowner filed a complaint against the sheriff's office of Cumberland County alleging bad faith seizure and seeking damages as provided by Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-215. The trial court granted the County's motion for summary judgment because the record contained no evidence of any intentional misconduct by the seizing officer, and the former homeowner appealed. We affirm the trial court's judgment.

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

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

          Robyn Beale Williams, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.



         I. Procedural and Factual Background

         This case involves the forfeiture of a house formerly belonging to Charles D. Sprunger. Child pornography was found on Mr. Sprunger's home computer in 2008, when Mr. Sprunger took his computer to a technician for service. John Haynes, a detective with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, seized the computer and obtained a search warrant for Mr. Sprunger's house. Ten months later, on May 19, 2009, Detective Haynes obtained a forfeiture warrant for Mr. Sprunger's house based on Mr. Sprunger's violation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1004, aggravated sexual exploitation of children. Mr. Sprunger was indicted in July 2009 for violating Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1003, knowingly possessing child pornography, which is a less serious offense than Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1004.

         On August 29, 2009, Mr. Sprunger received a "Notice of Property Seizure and Forfeiture of Conveyances, " notifying him that his house had been seized. Detective Haynes failed to provide information to Mr. Sprunger about how to contest the seizure, as the law required him to do. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-203(c)(5). Mr. Sprunger was tried and found guilty of sexual exploitation of a minor by knowingly possessing child pornography on his home computer in violation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1003. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

         Once the criminal court entered judgment against Mr. Sprunger, the State filed a complaint for judicial forfeiture. Mr. Sprunger's home mortgage lender had already initiated foreclosure proceedings, and the State wanted the trial court to enjoin the lender from disbursing any excess proceeds from the foreclosure sale to Mr. Sprunger. Mr. Sprunger was in prison by this time, and he responded to the State's complaint by sending a letter to the trial court in which he explained that Detective Haynes had failed to provide him with the required instructions for contesting the forfeiture of his property. The trial court granted the State the relief it requested. Mr. Sprunger's house was sold at auction the following day, and the excess funds ($31, 606.26) were deposited with the chancery court clerk and master pending a final resolution of the forfeiture proceeding.

         Mr. Sprunger appealed the trial court's decision, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Mr. Sprunger sought further review by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which granted Mr. Sprunger's petition for certiorari and reversed the trial court's judgment. The Supreme Court vacated the forfeiture because the State had failed to comply with the procedural requirements set forth in the forfeiture statutes, and it ruled that the excess funds from the foreclosure sale belonged to Mr. Sprunger. State v. Sprunger, 458 S.W.3d 482, 500-01 (Tenn. 2015).

          Following the Supreme Court's decision, Mr. Sprunger filed a Complaint for Bad Faith Seizure against the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office ("the County") pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-215. Mr. Sprunger alleged that Detective Haynes failed to comply with several procedural requirements when he obtained the forfeiture warrant for his house and when he prepared and served him with the Notice of Seizure. The County filed a motion to dismiss in which it alleged Mr. Sprunger's statutory claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court denied the County's motion to dismiss, but it granted the County the right to reassert the same argument for further consideration upon summary judgment.

         Both Mr. Sprunger and the County filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the County's motion and denied Mr. Sprunger's motion. First, the trial court addressed the County's argument that Mr. Sprunger's complaint was barred by the statute of limitations. The court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-215 "provides for a statutory penalty in the case of a bad faith seizure, " and that the applicable statute of limitations for statutory penalties is Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a), which allows a complaint to be filed one year after the cause of action accrued.[1] The trial court then explained that "[a] claim for a bad faith seizure action accrues only after a citizen prevails in a forfeiture proceeding." Because Mr. Sprunger filed his claim for bad faith seizure within two months of the Supreme Court's ruling vacating the forfeiture, the trial court concluded that the statute of limitations did not bar Mr. Sprunger's claim and denied this aspect of the County's motion.

         The trial court then ruled that Mr. Sprunger failed to meet his burden of proving the County had seized his house in bad faith because "there is not a scintilla of evidence in the record from which a trier of fact could determine intentional misconduct on the part of Detective Haynes." The court continued:

5. . . . The only evidence in the record before this Court is that Detective Haynes did not know Mr. Sprunger before the investigation, had no intent to injure Mr. Sprunger, and relied upon the directives of the chief law enforcement person in the district, the District Attorney's Office. Therefore, the plaintiff has failed to present any evidence to suggest that Detective Haynes' actions were intentional, dishonest, or willful amounting to bad faith under Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-215.
6. The Court also finds that the court record is devoid of any evidence establishing that there was no reasonable basis in law or fact to seize the property in question. Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the facts are insufficient in this case to establish conduct on the part of Detective Haynes constituting bad faith. The Grand Jury of Cumberland County convened and found a true bill against Mr. Sprunger for aggravated exploitation of children. The Grand Jury found that Mr. Sprunger had approximately 1000-1200 images of small children having sex. Additionally, Mr. Sprunger was ultimately convicted of the charge of exploitation of children for possession of such images. Accordingly, the defendant affirmatively has established that there was a reasonable basis in law for the seizure of the subject property.

         The trial court made "an additional and alternative finding" for purposes of determining the monetary damages Mr. Sprunger would be entitled to recover if he were successful in proving that Detective Haynes acted in bad faith.[2] Mr. Sprunger argued that he should be entitled to recover damages from the date of the forfeiture to the date the Supreme Court held that the forfeiture was improper. The trial court disagreed, however, and wrote that if he were able to prove bad faith, Mr. Sprunger would be entitled to ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.