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Supreme Court extends exceptions to warrant requirement

In the recent 2019 case of State v. McElrath, the Tennessee Supreme Court adopted a good-faith exception to the requirement of a warrant when police officers make mistakes that are the result of negligence and not reckless disregard or a systemic error. Any evidence obtained under this exception will not be suppressed in court. So what does this mean?

In McElrath, a police officer arrested the defendant without a warrant for being present on property owned by the housing authority because the defendant had been placed on a list of people maintained by the police department of those barred from the property. This information was relayed to the officer from dispatch. Upon performing a search incident to this arrest, the officer uncovered and seized marijuana from the defendant. Several days later the defendant returned to the property, was arrested again, and additional marijuana was recovered upon a search incident to his arrest. He was charged with an E Felony and A Misdemeanor for the drug offenses.

In court, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence, providing proof that he had been barred from the property in 2007 but was actually removed from the list in 2010 after he submitted a request. He therefore should have been removed from the police department's list almost 5 years prior to his arrest. The trial court concluded that the arresting officer did nothing wrong, but since the Tennessee Supreme Court had not expanded the exceptions to the warrant requirement to cover good faith actions of officers acting under erroneous information, the defendant's motions were granted and the evidence suppressed. The State appealed, but the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted review and determined that Tennessee ought to adopt such a good faith exception, and accordingly reversed the decision of the appellate and trial courts. The evidence would not be suppressed. Therefore, there now exists in Tennessee an exception to requirement of an arrest warrant prior to arrest when a police officer is acting in good faith but relying on information that is incorrect, so long as there is not a systemic error in the nature of the incorrect information, and the officer is not acting with reckless disregard. As this is a recent case, there will likely be futher case law forthcoming clarifying this new rule under different scenarios.

If you or someone you know has been arrested or searched without a warrant, call the attorneys at Saenz & Maniatis, PLLC at (615) 366-1211 for a case evaluation.

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