Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Lower Courts Decisions Striking Down Public Safety Act As Unconstitutional

July 22, 2019

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a trial court should not have considered the constitutionality of the Public Safety Act prior to entering two defendants’ guilty pleas.

The defendants, A.B. Price, Jr., and Victor Sims, were charged with crimes in separate cases, and both reached negotiated plea agreements with the State of Tennessee.  In early January 2017, when the defendants sought to enter their pleas, the trial court, without any request from any party, expressed concern about certain provisions of the new Public Safety Act that could impact the probation part of the defendants’ negotiated pleas.  The new law had become effective January 1, 2017.  The trial court did not allow the defendants to enter their pleas and requested that the parties return to address the court’s concerns with the newly effective Public Safety Act. 

Following a hearing, the trial court ruled that these provisions of the Public Safety Act were unconstitutional on their face.  Upon entry of the defendants’ pleas, the trial court included language in the judgment orders providing that the probation portion of each defendant’s sentence was not subject to the Public Safety Act, but rather pre-existing law that was in effect prior to January 1, 2017. 

The State appealed the trial court’s determination as to the constitutionality of the Public Safety Act, and the Court of Criminal Appeals, in a split opinion, affirmed the trial court’s judgments.  The State then filed an application for permission to appeal, which the Supreme Court granted.

In its decision, the Supreme Court emphasized that, at the time the trial court ruled on the constitutionality of the Public Safety Act provisions, neither defendant was accused of a probation violation or even sentenced to probation.  Therefore, the Court held that the constitutional issues were not appropriate for the trial court to rule upon at the time of its decision.

As a result, the Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.  The Court remanded the matter to the trial court for entry of amended judgments compliant with the Public Safety Act. 

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in State of Tennessee v. A.B. Price, Jr. and Victor Sims, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.