Session: Heard in Jackson April 6, 2017
Certified Question of Law from the United States District
Court for the Western District of Tennessee No. 15-1015 J.
Daniel Breen, Judge
accepted certification of questions of law from the United
States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee,
which require us to determine: (1) whether, for split
confinement sentences, Tennessee law authorizes a sentencing
court to fix a percentage of the sentence that a defendant
must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to
participate in a work program in the local jail or workhouse;
and (2) whether Tennessee law imposes a duty on a sheriff to
challenge an inmate's improper or potentially improper
sentence. We conclude (1) that for split confinement
sentences Tennessee trial judges are authorized to fix a
percentage the defendant must serve in actual confinement
before becoming eligible to earn work credits; and (2) that
sheriffs in Tennessee have no duty to challenge an
inmate's sentence as improper or potentially improper.
Sup. Ct. R. 23 Certified Questions of Law
Bryan Moseley, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and LeAnne Thorne,
Lexington, Tennessee, for the petitioner, Jason Ray.
D. Tilly, and James I. Pentecost, Jackson, Tennessee, for the
respondent, Madison County, Tennessee.
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter;
Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Charlotte
Davis, Assistant Attorney General, for the amicus curiae,
Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter.
N. Estes, Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae,
Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.
Atnip and Patrick G. Frogge, Nashville, Tennessee, for the
amicus curiae, Tennessee Public Defenders Conference.
Richard Lewis Tennent, Nashville, Tennessee, and Sara Compher
Rice, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Brennan M. Wingerter, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus
curiae, Tennessee Sheriffs' Association.
Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly
Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.
CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE
Factual and Procedural Background
certified questions of law at issue in this appeal arise from
a lawsuit Jason Ray brought in the United States District
Court for the Western District of Tennessee ("District
Court") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mr. Ray
alleged that his civil rights were violated when his sentence
was not reduced by the work credits he earned as a
trusty while confined in the Madison County,
Tennessee jail ("Jail") on his split confinement
sentence. Mr. Ray's confinement in the Jail
resulted from his plea of guilty on June 3, 2013, to theft of
property over $60, 000, a Class B felony. Tenn. Code Ann.
§§ 39-14-103, -105(a)(5) (2014 & Supp. 2016).
Class B felonies have an overall sentencing range of eight to
thirty years, id. § 40-35-111(b)(2) (2014),
with Range I offenders, like Mr. Ray, subject to a range of
eight to twelve years, id. § 40-35-112(a)(2).
Mr. Ray received a ten-year sentence, but the trial court
ordered only eleven months and twenty-nine days served in
confinement at the Jail and ordered the remainder of the
sentence served on supervised probation. This type of
sentence, known as "split confinement" or
"shock probation, " is considered valuable "in
combining both incarceration and rehabilitation as part of a
sentencing program." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306
(2014), Sentencing Comm'n Cmts.; see also Shorts v.
Bartholomew, 278 S.W.3d 268, 271 (Tenn. 2009).
entered the Jail to serve the confinement portion of his
sentence on July 18, 2013, almost two weeks before the trial
court issued its official judgment on July 31, 2013. Such
delay between inmates entering the Jail and the Jail
receiving official judgments was not uncommon. As a result,
each inmate ordinarily entered the Jail with a
"disposition sheet"-a document described in the
record as a written form meant to ensure that the Jail
received accurate information concerning the inmate's
sentence and what had occurred in the trial court. Although
the disposition sheet had a signature line for the judge, it
was not an official court document. Nevertheless, Jail
personnel entered sentencing information from disposition
sheets into the Jail's computer system before receiving
official judgments. After receiving an official judgment,
Jail procedure called for Jail personnel to compare it to the
information taken from the inmate's disposition sheet.
Where the official judgment differed from the disposition
sheet, or questions arose about the inmate's sentence,
Jail procedure called for Jail personnel to seek
clarification from the attorneys or the judge involved in the
disposition sheet with which Mr. Ray entered the Jail on July
18, 2013, contained no language prohibiting him from
immediately serving as a trusty and earning work credits.
Five days after his arrival at the Jail, Mr. Ray signed an
Inmate Worker Policy Contract, which designated him a trusty
inmate worker and assigned him to work in the kitchen. Mr.
Ray's responsibilities included cooking, cleaning, and
passing out meal trays throughout the day. To fulfill these
duties, Mr. Ray awoke daily between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. to
serve breakfast at 4:30 a.m. As a trusty, Mr. Ray also
received certain privileges, including issuance of a white
jumpsuit instead of the blue one worn by the Jail's
general population, assignment to a trusty-only residence
pod, permission to wear tennis shoes, extra food, special
dining times, and unlimited tea.
days after Mr. Ray began working as a trusty, the trial court
issued its judgment in Mr. Ray's case on July 31, 2013.
The trial court used a judgment form that contained the
following line: "Minimum service prior to eligibility
for work release, furlough, trusty status and rehabilitation
programs: __% (Misdemeanor Only)." See Tenn.
Sup. Ct. R. 17. The trial judge placed "75" in the
blank space preceding the percent symbol.
75% notation first came under scrutiny in November 2013,
after Mr. Ray was mistakenly released from custody on October
24, 2013, "as a result of a miscalculation of his
sentence by a corrections officer." After learning that
Mr. Ray had been released from confinement, the trial judge,
on November 14, 2013, called Sergeant Chester Long, Jr., a
correctional officer at the Jail, to inquire about Mr.
Ray's early release. During this conversation, the trial
judge advised Sergeant Long that, pursuant to the trial
court's judgment, Mr. Ray was not eligible to earn work
credits until he had served 75% of his eleven month,
twenty-nine day sentence in actual confinement. The trial
judge directed Sergeant Long to have Mr. Ray picked up and
returned to the Jail to serve the balance of his sentence.
the trial judge called him, Sergeant Long was not aware Mr.
Ray had been released but promised to investigate the matter.
Sergeant Long thereafter talked with his supervisor, Captain
Tom Rudder, the Jail administrator, about the trial
judge's instructions. Captain Rudder and Sergeant Long
subsequently met with the trial judge to discuss the matter
further. In a declaration filed in the District Court, the
trial judge stated that, during this meeting, he
"explained to Captain Rudder and Sergeant Long that
pursuant to [the 75%] provision [in the judgment], [Mr. Ray]
was not entitled to work credits until he [had] served 75% of
his sentence. Both Sergeant Long and Captain Rudder stated
that they understood [the trial judge's] orders and
pursuant to [his] orders would not apply work credits to [Mr.
this meeting, Sergeant Long called Mr. Ray and instructed him
to return to the Jail, explaining that he had been mistakenly
released from custody too soon. Mr. Ray returned to the Jail
as instructed on November 17, 2013, and he immediately
resumed working as a trusty. One week later, on November 24,
2013, Mr. Ray filed a motion through counsel asking the trial
court to suspend the balance of his sentence or, in the
alternative, to place him on work release. See Tenn.
Code Ann. § 40-35-306(c) ("At any time during the
period of continuous confinement ordered pursuant to this
section, the defendant may apply to the sentencing court to
have the balance of the sentence served on probation
supervision. The application may be made at no less than
attended the hearing on the motion. At the conclusion of the
hearing, the trial court denied the motion, explaining:
Now, I want to make sure it's clear too, he's not
eligible for any type of work release credits. He's not
eligible for any type of trust[y] credits. The only credits
that he can earn are good behavior credits. That's the
reason it's listed at [75%]. So, you know, once he's
served a minimum of nine months in jail then if he's
behaved himself in jail then the sheriff could give him good
behavior credits and let him out on this 11 months and 29 day
period of shock incarceration. You know, that was the intent
of the Court. That's the Judgment of the Court[, ] and I
still feel like that's the proper sentence.
trial court's July 31, 2013 judgment was not amended
after this hearing, and Mr. Ray did not appeal the trial
court's denial of his motion. In a deposition filed in
the District Court, Mr. Ray acknowledged that the trial court
told him he would not be eligible for work credits until
after he had served 75% of the confinement portion of his
sentence. Nevertheless, Mr. Ray continued working as a trusty
at the Jail until his release on April 16, 2014.
calculating his April 16, 2014 release date, the Jail applied
only good behavior credits authorized by Tennessee Code
Annotated section 41-2-111(b) (2014). The Jail did not apply work
credits described in other statutes. See Tenn. Code
Ann. §§ 41-2-146,  -147,  and -150 (2014). In the
declaration submitted to the District Court, the trial judge
stated that applying work credits to the confinement portion
of Mr. Ray's sentence before he had served 75% of it
would have been a violation of his order. By not applying
work credits, the Jail had complied with his ruling.
contrast, Mr. Ray alleged in his federal civil rights action
that, had Madison County afforded him the work credits he
earned as a trusty, he would have been released from the Jail
seven weeks earlier. Mr. Ray argued that, by holding him
beyond the date he should have been released, Madison County
deprived him of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution. Mr. Ray
contended that "he had a liberty interest in the work
credits that the [trial court's] order and instructions
could not defeat."
County moved for summary judgment in the District Court,
arguing that Tennessee statutes and decisions authorize a
sentencing judge to establish the percentage of actual
confinement that a split confinement inmate must serve prior
to becoming eligible to accrue work credits. The District
Court denied Madison County's motion for summary
judgment. Nevertheless, the District Court
certified the following questions to this Court:
1. Does a Tennessee sentencing court or the county sheriff
possess the ultimate authority to determine the eligibility
of a felon sentenced to serve a split confinement sentence in
a local jail or workhouse to participate in a trusty work
program and, therefore, be entitled to work credits under
Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 41-2-146 or 41-2-147?
2. In the event a Tennessee sentencing court issues an
improper or potentially improper sentence, does a sheriff
have a duty under Rule 36.1 or the Tennessee Rules of
Criminal Procedure or under any other Tennessee law to
challenge the sentence, or is [it] the duty of the criminal
defendant, the defense attorney and the district attorney
general to challenge an illegal sentence?
accepted certification of these two questions but also
directed the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing
some additional underlying questions:
1. When a sentencing court imposes a sentence of split
confinement pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306,
whereby a defendant is ordered to serve a period of
continuous confinement of up to one year in the local jail or
workhouse followed by a period of probation, which additional
statutory sentencing provisions, if any, dictate how the
period of continuous confinement is to be served?
A. Does Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-302(d), Tenn. Code Ann.
§ 40-35-314(b)(1), or any other statutory provision
authorize a sentencing court (imposing a sentence of split
confinement pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306) to
fix a percentage of the continuous confinement portion that a
defendant must serve prior to being eligible for
consideration in a work release/trusty program in the local
jail or workhouse?
B. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-211(3) provides that if a
defendant is convicted of an offense designated as a felony
but the court imposes a sentence of less than one year in the
jail or local workhouse, the defendant is considered a felon
but he is sentenced as in the case of a misdemeanor. Despite
the reference in the Sentencing Commission Comments that this
section continues the practice of allowing certain Class E
felons to serve a sentence of less than one year in the local
jail or workhouse, did the General Assembly intend for this
statutory section to apply to a defendant who, as here, was
convicted of a Class B felony and received a ten-year
sentence to be served in split confinement with 11 months, 29
days confinement in the local jail or workhouse and the
2. If the sentencing court imposes a sentence of split
confinement and is authorized to fix a percentage of service
that a defendant must serve prior to becoming eligible for
work credits, does such authority conflict with Tenn. Code.
Ann. §§ 41-2-146, 41-2-147, 41-2-150, or any other
provision related to earning or crediting work credits?
Ray v. Madison Cnty., M2016-01577-SC-R23-CV (Tenn.
Dec. 21, 2016) (order accepting certification and requesting
supplemental briefing of underlying issues). We also invited
the Tennessee Bar Association, the Tennessee Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Tennessee Attorney General, the
Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference, and the
Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to submit
amici curiae briefs. I ...