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State v. Butts

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 29, 2018


          Assigned on Briefs January 4, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Tipton County No. 8700 Joe H. Walker, III, Judge

         The Defendant, Jason Levi Butts, fired a shot from a rifle toward a home, and the bullet penetrated the wall and hit the sleeping victim in the hip. The trial court ruled that all three statements which the Defendant made to law enforcement during the investigation of the shooting were admissible. The Defendant was convicted after a bench trial of reckless endangerment, a Class C felony, and reckless aggravated assault, a Class D felony, and the trial court sentenced him to concurrent sentences of three and two years, respectively. The Defendant appeals, asserting that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress his statements and that the evidence is insufficient to support the verdicts. We conclude that the trial court erred in admitting the Defendant's initial statement to police, which he made without being advised of his rights and after law enforcement twice told him he could not leave the police station. However, we conclude that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and we affirm the convictions.

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

          Bryan R. Huffman, Covington, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jason Levi Butts.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrew C. Coulam, Assistant Attorney General; Mark E. Davidson, District Attorney General; and Walter Freeland, Jr. (at motion hearings and sentencing) and Sean Hord (at trial), Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          John Everett Williams, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Alan E. Glenn and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.




         The Defendant was involved in a quarrel with Mr. Myron Robinson, and on April 23, 2016, he drove with some companions to a mobile home where they expected to find Mr. Robinson. The Defendant observed Mr. Robinson's vehicle and shot his rifle toward the home, where the victim, Ms. Dana Rapp, was asleep in bed next her nine-year-old daughter. Numerous other individuals, including Mr. Robinson and several minors, were in the home. Ms. Rapp suffered a gunshot wound to her hip. The Defendant gave police a statement two days later at the police station, acknowledging that he was present at the shooting but asserting that the shooter was a passenger in his vehicle. The Defendant was arrested at his mother's home two days after his initial statement. Law enforcement officers contacted the Defendant's mother by telephone for permission to search her home, and the Defendant spoke to her within earshot of law enforcement, acknowledging that he had shot a woman. The Defendant then gave a third statement after his arrest, in which he admitted that he drove to the house and fired a random shot. He expressed remorse for his actions. Prior to trial, the Defendant moved to suppress all three statements.

         Motion to Suppress

         Detective Jay Rodriguez of the Tipton County Sheriff's Office testified that he was called to investigate the crime and that he developed the Defendant as a suspect approximately two days after the shooting. On April 25, 2016, at around 2:30 p.m., the Defendant drove himself to the police station for an interview. The Defendant indicated during the interview that he believed his presence was related to a drug seizure that had occurred at a trailer which he owned and rented to tenants. The interview was video recorded and took place in an area of the building that required a code for either entry or departure.

         Detective Rodriguez testified that the Defendant was not under arrest and was free to go at any time. He was not informed of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 479 (1966). The Defendant testified that he did not believe he was under arrest but also did not feel "free to go, " in particular because he could not access his keys. He clarified, however, that "nobody had them. It was in an office." The Defendant and Detective Rodriguez agreed that there were two to three officers who were "in and out" of the room during the interview.

         The video of the interview, which contains frequent lapses in audio, was attached as an exhibit. The Defendant was interviewed in a small room with a circular table. While one officer was sitting closer to the door than the Defendant, the Defendant had a direct and unobstructed route to the door. The interview began conversationally, with the Defendant describing how he suffered from a sinus infection. The parties discussed the seizure of drugs from the tenants at the trailer owned by the Defendant.

         Detective Rodriguez began the interview by asking the Defendant about an injury over his eye, and the Defendant stated that he fell onto a nail while moving a box of books. Detective Rodriguez then told the Defendant that he was not under arrest and that he could go at any time he wanted. Demonstrating that the door to the room remained unlocked, Detective Rodriguez stated, "There's the door, right?" Detective Rodriguez discussed the drug seizure at the trailer briefly, then began to ask the Defendant regarding his whereabouts on the night of the shooting.

         The Defendant gave a statement essentially asserting that he had been ill on the day of the shooting and had remained at home except for a trip to the doctor and the pharmacy. He initially denied knowing anyone named Myron but then acknowledged that he knew Mr. Robinson and that he had heard one of the tenants of his trailer discussing Mr. Robinson earlier in the week.

         Detective Rodriguez asked the Defendant if law enforcement could examine his telephone. The Defendant deflected the question, stating that it was in his vehicle. Asked again a few minutes later, he stated it would be an invasion of his privacy. After further discussion of the drug seizure at the Defendant's trailer, Detective Rodriguez asked if the Defendant's telephone would confirm that he had been at his residence during the time of the shooting. At that point, the Defendant asserted that he had misplaced his telephone on the day of the shooting and that he only regained possession later that weekend.

         Detective Rodriguez absented himself from the room briefly. While he was gone, the Defendant asked Detective Brandon Shelton, "Am I free to go?" Detective Shelton responded, "Let me ask him real quick." After stepping out of the room, Detective Shelton informed the Defendant, "Hey, man, we got a couple more questions." Detective Shelton proceeded to offer the Defendant water or a "tic tac." The Defendant stated that he just wanted to go home and sleep.

         When Detective Rodriguez returned to the room, he accused the Defendant of lying. He told the Defendant, "It's fixing to be bad on you." The Defendant responded, "Okay. Well, then, lawyer." Detective Rodriguez did not ask the Defendant further questions but told him, "Let me walk out to your car. I'm going to take your phone. I'm seizing your phone." The Defendant objected, and Detective Rodriguez responded that he would get a warrant. All present left the room for three minutes.

          The Defendant and officers returned to the room and the following exchange occurred:

Defendant: Am I under arrest?
Detective Rodriguez: No, we're fixing to get a sear- You can't leave. We're fixing to get a search warrant on the truck.
Defendant: How can I not leave? I'm not under arrest?
Detective Rodriguez: You can go walk all you want to, bubba.

         The room was again abandoned, but the audio reveals that Detective Rodriguez was nearby describing the evidence that could support a search warrant. He noted that the Defendant was "out there now. He's trying to leave. He won't let us get his phone." Detective Rodriguez described the Defendant as "out there somewhere with" Detective Shelton. Detective Sherry Wassel can then be heard recounting that the Defendant was searching for his telephone in the car with Detective Shelton ...

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