Police corroboration key in finding probable cause for search warrant affidavit

Applying State v. Tuttle, 515 S.W.3d 282 (Tenn. 2017), the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s suppression of evidence because the trial court improperly found that the affidavit in support of the search warrant was defective and failed to give rise to probable cause.

Before Tuttle, Tennessee courts applied the two-pronged Aguilar-Spinelli test to determine if the issuance of a search warrant was proper.  See State v. Jacumin, 778 S.W.2d 430 (Tenn. 1989).  Under the Aguilar-Spinelli test, a supporting affidavit in support of a search warrant had to show (1) the informant’s basis of knowledge and (2) the veracity of the informant or the reliability of the informant’s information.  Unless there was independent police corroboration, see State v. Moon, 841 S.W.3d 336, 341 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1992), both prongs were mandatory.  While the affidavit didn’t need a lot of information regarding the informant’s credibility, it had to have “some concrete reason why the magistrate should believe the informant.”  State v. Lowe, 949 S.W.2d 300, 305 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1996).

Tuttle eliminated the necessity of both prongs by adopting the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis in Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983).  In doing so, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated:

[U]nder the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, the informant’s basis of knowledge and veracity or credibility remain highly relevant considerations.  Rather than separate and independent considerations, they “should [now] be understood simply as closely intertwined issues that may usefully illuminate the commonsense, practical question [of] whether there is ‘probable cause’ to believe that contraband or evidence is located in a particular place. 

In this case, the affidavit’s “statement” about the confidential informant’s reliability was as follows:

A Confidential Source, hereafter referred to as CS, has contacted the affiant concerning suspect Rodney Starnes, “AKA Hot Rod” selling synthetic cannabinoids from his residence at 55 Kari Circle. CS stated that Mr. Starnes is a well[-]known synthetic cannabinoid dealer and that CS has previously bought synthetic cannabinoids from Mr. Starnes.

At a motion to suppress hearing on July 19, 2016, which was before Tuttle, the defendant argued that this was insufficient to establish the informant’s reliability, and the trial court agreed, stating that the affidavit was “poorly drafted” and that “there could be some information that’s lacking to comply with Aguilar-Spinelli and the Jacumin decision.”  Accordingly, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress.

However, on appeal, the court of criminal appeals disagreed with the trial court and concluded that “[t]he facts set forth in the affidavit established the informant’s veracity and basis of knowledge.”  In making its decision, the appellate court focused on police corroboration of the informant’s statements.  Specifically, the informant told police that the defendant was a well-known cannabinoid dealer and that the informant had been to the defendant’s residence and purchased synthetic cannabinoids.  During a pre-warrant investigation, neighbors told police that a car pulled up to the defendant’s home every day at 3:30 p.m. to pick up drugs.  Staking out the home, officers observed a car pull up at 3:28 p.m and receive a package from a female occupant of the house.  A few days later, the officers observed a car pull up and the driver go to the rear of the defendant’s house.  After an officer saw that the passenger in the vehicle was not wearing a seat-belt and a child in the vehicle was unrestrained, he stopped the car and found marijuana.  During an interview, one of the passengers admitted to police that the defendant sold synthetic cannabinoids and that she delivered a package that she believed contained synthetic cannabinoids on the day the officers observed a car pull up at 3:28 p.m.  To make matters worse for the defendant, while the officer’s waited at his residence, his sister-in-law arrived and told the officers that the defendant’s brother had gotten synthetic cannabinoids from the defendant one month prior.  Based on these corroborating facts establishing the informant’s veracity and basis of knowledge, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

State v. Starnes, No. W2016-02491-CCA-R3-CD (Nov. 29, 2017)


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