CUMBERLAND COUNTY, TN SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Session June 6, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Cumberland County No. 2015-CH-899
Ronald Thurman, Chancellor
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.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Benjamin K. Raybin, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant,
Charles D. Sprunger.
Beale Williams, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee,
Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.
D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
Richard H. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.
D. BENNETT, JUDGE
Procedural and Factual Background
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
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. 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 ...