Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
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.

State v. Minor

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Jackson

April 11, 2018

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
CHRISTOPHER MINOR

          Session November 8, 2017

          Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Circuit Court for Madison County No. 15-167 Roy B. Morgan, Jr., Judge

         We granted this appeal to clarify the interplay among appellate review preservation requirements, the plain error doctrine, and the retroactive application of new rules. We conclude that a new rule applies retroactively to cases pending on direct review when the new rule is announced but does so subject to other jurisprudential concepts, such as appellate review preservation requirements and the plain error doctrine. Accordingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in State v. Bonds, 502 S.W.3d 118 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2016), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Aug. 18, 2016), declaring the criminal gang offense statute, see Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-121(b) (2014), unconstitutional applies to the defendant's appeal because it was pending on direct review when Bonds was decided. Nevertheless, we evaluate the defendant's entitlement to relief by applying the plain error doctrine because the defendant failed to challenge the constitutionality of the statute in the trial court. We conclude that the defendant has established the criteria necessary to obtain relief pursuant to the plain error doctrine. Therefore, we reverse that portion of the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision denying the defendant relief and vacate the defendant's convictions under the criminal gang offense statute. We remand this matter to the trial court for resentencing on the defendant's remaining convictions in accordance with the sentencing classification ranges established by the specific statutes creating the offenses, without any classification or sentence enhancement pursuant to the criminal gang offense statute.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed; Case Remanded for Resentencing

          Lee R. Sparks and Joshua B. Dougan, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Christopher Minor.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Jeffrey D. Zentner, Assistant Attorney General; James G. Woodall, District Attorney General; and Aaron J. Chaplin, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined. Sharon G. Lee, J., filed a separate concurring opinion.

          OPINION

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE

         I. Factual Background[1]

         On June 8, 2014, Christopher Minor, a member of the Black P-Stone Nation criminal gang, [2] and another gang member went to an apartment Rico Swift shared with his girlfriend, Julie Frye, on the pretext of buying marijuana. They were acting on orders from a gang leader to rob Mr. Swift, and other gang members were waiting just outside the apartment. The two men entered the apartment, and, when Mr. Swift turned his back to retrieve the marijuana, they attacked him, punching and choking him. During the assault, the other gang members entered the apartment. According to Ms. Frye, the men choked Mr. Swift until his legs "started jumping" and he turned blue. When Ms. Frye attempted to leave the room to grab a knife to assist Mr. Swift, the defendant followed her and struck her with a gun, knocking her unconscious. By the time Ms. Frye regained consciousness, the assailants were gone, but Mr. Swift was lying on the sofa, unconscious and badly injured in a pool of his own blood. Emergency personnel were summoned, but Mr. Swift died from the injuries he sustained. Ms. Frye later discovered that the assailants had also stolen items from her purse.

         Days later, police investigators linked the defendant to the crime. They showed Ms. Frye a photographic array, and she identified the defendant as the person who beat Mr. Swift and knocked her unconscious. When the officers questioned the defendant, he admitted being present at Mr. Swift's apartment, but he denied any involvement in assaulting Mr. Swift or Ms. Frye. According to the defendant, he was simply a scout and left the apartment and advised the gang members waiting outside not to go through with the planned robbery because Mr. Swift was not alone. The defendant admitted accepting his share of the proceeds from the robbery, however, explaining that he would have been disciplined by the gang had he refused.

          The Madison County Grand Jury returned a sixteen-count indictment charging the defendant with two counts of felony murder, [3] two counts of aggravated robbery, [4] one count of aggravated burglary, [5] one count of aggravated assault, [6] six counts of violating the criminal gang offense statute, [7] which corresponded to the preceding six offenses charged in the indictment, one count of being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, [8] one count of employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, [9] one count of being a convicted felon who employed a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, [10] and one additional count of violating the criminal gang offense statute, which corresponded to the charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun.[11] In the first phase of the defendant's bifurcated trial, the jury convicted him on the charges of felony murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, aggravated assault, and employing a firearm during the commission of the dangerous felony of aggravated burglary. In the second phase of the trial, the jury convicted the defendant on the remaining charges, including the seven counts of violating the criminal gang offense statute. These convictions qualified the defendant for sentencing on the criminal gang offenses at "one (1) classification higher than the classification established by the specific statute[s] creating the offense[s] committed." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-121(b).[12]

          The transcript of the sentencing hearing is not included in the record on appeal, but the judgments reflect the trial court's decision to merge several of the defendant's convictions and impose a total effective sentence of life plus twenty years. Although the record is not crystal clear, at least ten years of the defendant's effective sentence resulted from enhancement under the criminal gang offense statute. Additionally, the trial court recorded the defendant's convictions of aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, aggravated assault, and felon in possession of a handgun as one classification higher than the classifications established by the statutes creating the offenses, as authorized by the criminal gang offense statute. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-121(b).

         After the defendant's trial but during the pendency of his appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a decision in another case which declared the criminal gang offense statute unconstitutional. Bonds, 502 S.W.3d at 152-62. In his appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant relied on Bonds to attack-for the first time- the constitutionality of the criminal gang offense statute, arguing that his convictions under the statute should be vacated and his case remanded to the trial court for resentencing. Minor, 2017 WL 634781, at *8-9. The defendant also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions. Id. at *7. The State countered that the evidence sufficiently supported the defendant's convictions, that the defendant had waived his constitutional challenge to the statute by failing to raise the issue in the trial court, and that the defendant was not entitled to relief on his constitutional claim via the plain error doctrine. Id. A majority of the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the State's arguments and affirmed the defendant's convictions and sentences. Id. at *9.

         In applying the plain error doctrine and answering the question of whether a clear and unequivocal rule of law had been breached, the majority in the Court of Criminal Appeals focused on the law existing at the time of the defendant's trial rather than at the time of appeal and concluded that no breach had occurred because, like any other statute, the criminal gang offense statute was presumptively constitutional until later declared invalid by Bonds. Id. One judge dissented and would have reversed and vacated the defendant's convictions under the criminal gang offense statute. The dissenting judge opined that even though he had not raised the issue in the trial court, the defendant was entitled to the benefit of the ruling in Bonds unconstrained by the plain error doctrine because his case was pending on appeal when Bonds was decided. Id. at *11 (McMullen, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). We granted the defendant's application for permission to appeal, and in the order doing so, notified the parties of this Court's particular interest "in briefing and argument on the effect, if any, of Henderson v. United States, 568 U.S. 266 (2013)." State v. Minor, W2016-00348-SC-R11-CD (Tenn. July 20, 2017) (order granting Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 11 application).

          II. Standards of Review

         This appeal requires us to determine the standards that apply when a defendant fails to challenge the constitutionality of a statute at trial but raises the issue on appeal based on an intervening appellate court decision declaring the statute unconstitutional.[13]Encompassed within this general issue are several more specific questions regarding the interplay among appellate review preservation requirements, the plain error doctrine, and the retroactive application of appellate court decisions. All of these issues are questions of law to which de novo review applies. See State v. Knowles, 470 S.W.3d 416, 423 (Tenn. 2015) ("Whether the plain error doctrine has been satisfied is a question of law which we review de novo."); Bush v. State, 428 S.W.3d 1, 16 (Tenn. 2014) (stating that whether a new rule of constitutional law is entitled to retroactive application is a question of law subject to de novo review); State v. Cooper, 321 S.W.3d 501, 506 (Tenn. 2010) (explaining that de novo review applies to the determination of whether a defendant is entitled to relief via the plain error doctrine).

         III. Analysis

         A. Preserving Issues for Appellate Review

         Appellate review generally is limited to issues that a party properly preserves for review by raising the issues in the trial court and on appeal. See Tenn. R. Crim. P. 51; Tenn. R. Evid. 103(a)-(b); Tenn. R. App. P. 3(e); 13(b), 27(a)(4), 36(a); State v. Bledsoe, 226 S.W.3d 349, 353-54 (Tenn. 2007). The obligation to preserve issues for appellate review applies to constitutional issues and issues of "any other sort." United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 731 (1993); see also Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 134 (2009); Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 444 (1944); State v. Bishop, 431 S.W.3d 22, 43 (Tenn. 2014); State v. Jordan, 325 S.W.3d 1, 58 (Tenn. 2010). Appellate review preservation requirements ensure that the defense and the prosecution are afforded an opportunity to develop fully their opposing positions on an issue, and such requirements also enable a trial court to avoid or rectify an error before a judgment becomes final. Puckett, 566 U.S. at 134; Bishop, 431 S.W. at 43; Jordan, 325 S.W.3d at 57-58. As a result, appellate review preservation requirements serve to promote fairness, justice, and judicial economy by fostering the expeditious avoidance or correction of errors before their full impact is realized, and in this way, may obviate altogether the need for appellate review. Jordan, 325 S.W.3d 57-58; see also United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 15 (1985) (recognizing that appellate review preservation requirements "encourage all trial participants to seek a fair and accurate trial the first time around" (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         B. Plain Error Doctrine

         Despite the laudatory purposes served by appellate review preservation requirements, the plain error doctrine has long been recognized as a necessary exception to these requirements, which affords appellate courts discretion to review unpreserved errors and grant relief when fairness and justice demand. Puckett, 556 U.S. at 135; Olano, 507 U.S. at 732; Knowles, 470 S.W.3d at 423; Bledsoe, 226 S.W.3d at 354; Wayne R. LaFave et al., 7 Criminal Procedure § 27.5(d) (4th ed. & Dec. 2017 Update) ("All but a few jurisdictions recognize the authority of an appellate court to reverse on the basis of plain error even though that error was not properly raised and preserved at the trial level.").[14] The plain error doctrine in Tennessee was recognized at common law, Bledsoe, 226 S.W.3d at 354, but is now expressed in Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 36(b), which provides, in relevant part:

When necessary to do substantial justice, an appellate court may consider an error that has affected the substantial rights of a party at any time, even though the error was not raised in the motion for a new trial or assigned as error on appeal.

Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b); see also Knowles, 470 S.W.3d at 423 (discussing Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b)). As in the federal courts, the plain error doctrine in Tennessee thus functions as an exception to appellate review preservation requirements and "tempers the blow of a rigid application" of such requirements. Young, 470 U.S. at 15. The plain error doctrine embodies the recognition that a "rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice." Olano, 507 U.S. at 732 (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, Rule 36(b) expressly authorizes an appellate court to consider an error that was not raised either in the trial court or on appeal if consideration of the error is necessary "to do substantial justice" and the error "has affected the substantial rights of a party." Thus, by design the plain error doctrine ensures that "obvious injustice [is] promptly redressed." Young, 470 U.S. at 15 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Charles Alan Wright, et al., 3B Fed. Prac. & Proc. Crim. § 856 (4th ed. & April 2017 Update) ("Clearly one purpose of the plain error rule is to protect the defendant. If a serious injustice was done it should be remedied.").

         On the other hand, appellate courts must "sparingly exercise[]" their authority under the plain error doctrine. Bledsoe, 226 S.W.3d at 354; see also Olano, 507 U.S. at 732; Young, 470 U.S. at 15. This is true because "[t]he premise of our adversarial system is that appellate courts do not sit as self-directed boards of legal inquiry and research, but essentially as arbitrators of legal questions presented and argued by the parties before them." Nat'l Aeronautics & Space Admin. v. Nelson, 562 U.S. 134, 148 n.10 (2011); see also Bishop, 431 S.W.3d at 44. Only by circumspectly exercising their authority will appellate courts maintain the "careful balance" between appellate review preservation requirements and the plain error doctrine. Young, 470 U.S. at 15.

         As in the federal courts, the plain error doctrine in Tennessee "has the unique distinction of being both a standard of review and a multi-pronged test, and the court will grant relief only if each prong of the test is satisfied." Ian S. Speir and Nima H. Mohebbi, Preservation Rules in the Federal Courts of Appeals, 16 J. App. Prac. & Process 281, 285 (2015). Therefore an appellate court in Tennessee may consider an unpreserved error pursuant to the plain error doctrine and grant relief if the defendant establishes the following five criteria: (1) the record clearly establishes what occurred in the trial court; (2) a clear and unequivocal rule of law was breached; (3) a substantial right of the accused was adversely affected; (4) the issue was not waived for tactical reasons; and (5) consideration of the error is necessary to do substantial justice. Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b); State v. Martin, 505 S.W.3d 492, 504 (Tenn. 2016); State v. Hester, 324 S.W.3d 1, 56 (Tenn. 2010); State v. Gomez, 239 S.W.3d 733, 737 (Tenn. 2007) ("Gomez II"). If a defendant fails to establish any of these criteria, an appellate court must deny relief under the plain error doctrine, and an appellate court need not consider all criteria when the record demonstrates that one of them cannot be established. Knowles, 470 S.W.3d at 425.

         Given the criteria that must be satisfied to obtain relief, the plain error doctrine inherently serves as an incentive for parties to satisfy appellate review preservation requirements. If a defendant properly preserves an issue, an appellate court applies plenary appellate review when evaluating the defendant's entitlement to relief. Griffith 479 U.S. at 328; State v. Gomez, 163 S.W.3d 632, 645 (Tenn. 2005), cert. granted, judgment vacated on other grounds, by Gomez v. Tennessee, 549 U.S. 1190 (2007) (hereinafter "Gomez I"); see also Knowles, 470 S.W.3d at 423 (applying the plain error doctrine "because the defendant did not properly preserve the election issue for plenary appellate review"); Bishop, 431 S.W.3d at 43-44 (holding that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred by failing to apply the plain error doctrine when it addressed an issue that the defendant had not properly preserved for appeal); State v. Rice, 184 S.W.3d 646, 676 (Tenn. 2006) (recognizing that a defendant who fails to request a jury instruction is precluded from seeking plenary appellate review but may obtain review and relief via the plain error doctrine). Under plenary appellate review, a defendant who alleges a nonstructural constitutional error, like that alleged by the defendant in this case, bears the burden of persuading an appellate court that the non-structural constitutional error occurred. State v. Climer, 400 S.W.3d 537, 569 (Tenn. 2013); see also State v. Rodriguez, 254 S.W.3d 361, 371 (Tenn. 2008) (discussing the three categories of error- structural constitutional error, non-structural constitutional error, and non-constitutional error-and explaining the differing standards appellate courts apply when evaluating each category of error). Once the defendant satisfies this obligation, the appellate court must grant relief on the non-structural constitutional error unless the State then establishes that the non-structural constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. Thus, a defendant who satisfies appellate review preservation requirements regarding an alleged non-structural constitutional error has a lighter burden to bear when seeking relief on appeal than does a defendant who fails to satisfy appellate review preservation requirements for that same claim. This is the difference between plenary appellate review and the plain error doctrine. We turn next to consider whether plenary appellate review rather than the plain error doctrine should apply, despite a defendant's failure to satisfy appellate review preservation requirements, if a defendant's claim of non-structural constitutional error is based on a court decision announced after the defendant's trial but while the defendant's appeal is pending.

         C. Appellate Review Preservation Requirements, the Plain Error Doctrine, and the Retroactive Application of New Rules to Cases Pending on Direct Review

         It is undisputed that the defendant failed to challenge the constitutionality of the criminal gang offense statute in the trial court and raised the issue for the first time on appeal based on Bonds, which was decided after the defendant's trial. The defendant nevertheless argues that Bonds applies retroactively to all cases pending on direct review when it was decided, including his, and that appellate courts must evaluate his entitlement to relief under Bonds unconstrained by the plain error doctrine because Bonds constitutes a new rule.[15] The defendant asserts that he is entitled to relief from his convictions and sentences under the unconstitutional statute unless the State establishes that the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

         The defendant is partially correct. The ruling in Bonds applies to all cases pending on direct review when it was decided. Both the United States Supreme Court and a prior decision of this Court have held that appellate courts apply new constitutional rules retroactively to all cases pending on direct review when the new rule was ...


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.