Supreme Court Rules a Defendant has no Appeal from the Denial of a Motion for Return of Property

June 2, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a defendant in a criminal case has no right to appeal a decision denying his request for the return of property that was seized during a criminal investigation when the defendant failed to file a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence.

In February 2010, police went to the home of Ray Rowland in Memphis after receiving a report that he had fired two gunshots in the direction of another person. After Rowland consented to a search of his home, police seized nearly 50 items, most of which were firearms. In May 2010, a Shelby County Grand Jury indicted Rowland on two counts of aggravated assault by use or display of a deadly weapon. In August 2011, he pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless endangerment and received suspended sentences. Before he pleaded guilty, Rowland did not challenge the legality of the seizure of his property or seek its return. Three years later, Rowland filed a motion under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g) for return of the firearms and other property seized from his house. The trial court denied the motion, ruling it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

Rowland appealed. The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with the trial court and remanded the case for a hearing. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Rowland might be entitled to a return of his property because the State’s continued retention of the property, which was not stolen and not connected to the crime for which he was convicted, was an illegal seizure.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s request to review the case. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Sharon Lee, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and dismissed the appeal. The Court held that Rowland had no right to appeal the trial court’s order denying the Rule 41(g) motion when he had failed to challenge the legality of the search in the trial court. By his guilty plea, Rowland waived any issue regarding the legality of the search of his house and the seizure of his property.The Court ruled that a defendant does not have an automatic right to appeal in every case but may appeal only those cases listed in Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 3(b). Because a motion for return of property is not listed in Rule 3(b), Rowland had no right to appeal. The Court explained that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred by hearing Rowland’s appeal when Rule 3(b) did not authorize an appeal and by deciding that Rowland could be entitled to relief under Rule 41(g). For these reasons, the trial court’s dismissal of the case was affirmed. 

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Rowland, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov