Tennessee Supreme Court Sends Vehicular Homicide Case Back for New Sentencing Hearing

November 3, 2017

The Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed and remanded for a new sentencing hearing a fatal driving under the influence case from Claiborne County involving the defendant’s overuse of prescription pain medication. The trial court sentenced the defendant to eight years in prison, but the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmatively directed the trial court to place the defendant on eight years probation with no jail time. The Supreme Court disagreed with both lower courts’ treatment of the case at sentencing, concluding that not enough evidence or findings were presented to support either conclusion.

In 2012, defendant Kevin E. Trent was driving a three-quarter-ton pick-up when he struck the vehicle operated by Karen Freeman, who died of her injuries. The defendant pled guilty to vehicular homicide resulting from intoxication, a Class B felony. Under the plea agreement, the defendant was to be sentenced as a standard offender to eight years, with the manner of service of the sentence being determined by a trial court after a hearing.

At the hearing, evidence was presented about the victim’s life as well as the defendant’s history, which included a serious motorcycle accident that resulted in the loss of limbs. The defendant, however, had no criminal history. Testimony was presented on the defendant’s use of Oxycodone, and it was shown that his blood level was above the therapeutic level when tested after the accident.  The trial court determined the entire sentence of eight years should be served in prison. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals found the trial court based its decision on the mere elements of the crime and not on any egregious or aggravating circumstances. Therefore, it directed the trial court to sentence the defendant to eight years full probation. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court agreed that a trial court cannot deny probation solely on the basis of the offense itself when the legislature has determined the crime is probation-eligible. The trial court made few, if any, findings on how the accident occurred or the extent of the overdose, and it misapplied the enhancement factor. However, the Supreme Court also found the record was not sufficient to agree with the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision on full probation because some evidence, especially related to the defendant’s probability to reoffend, was included in the trial court’s initial decision. Moreover, the burden of proving suitability for full probation is on the defendant. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.

To read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Kevin E. Trent, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.