Tennessee Supreme Court Holds That Probation Revocation Proceedings Are a Two-Step Process for Trial Courts, Clarifies Standard of Appellate Review

March 4, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that a probation revocation proceeding involves a two-step inquiry on the part of the trial court. The Court also held that, if the trial court has properly placed its findings on the record, the standard of appellate review for probation revocations is abuse of discretion with a presumption of reasonableness.

In 2015, Craig Dagnan (“Defendant”) pleaded guilty to theft of property over $1,000 but less than $10,000. He received a six-year sentence, which the trial court suspended to supervised probation. Five separate revocation proceedings followed Defendant’s original sentencing hearing. After Defendant’s fifth and final revocation hearing, the trial court found that Defendant violated the terms of his probation by absconding. The trial court then fully revoked Defendant’s probation to serve the remainder of his sentence in the Tennessee Department of Correction. 

Defendant appealed the consequence imposed for his fifth probation violation. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court, concluding that the trial court had not abused its discretion. Judge Timothy L. Easter filed a separate concurring opinion in which he emphasized his belief that a trial court, after determining that probation should be revoked, is not statutorily required to hold an additional hearing or make any additional findings to determine the manner in which the original sentence should be served.

The Supreme Court granted Defendant’s application for permission to appeal to clarify and bring uniformity to the standards and principles applied by the trial courts and appellate courts in probation revocation proceedings. The Court held that probation revocation proceedings involve two separate exercises of discretion. A trial court, upon finding by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant has violated the conditions of probation, must determine (1) whether to revoke probation, and (2) the appropriate consequence to impose upon revocation. The Supreme Court emphasized that appellate courts must review both decisions separately. The Court considered the standard of review for sentencing decisions established in prior Supreme Court opinions and extended the same standard to review of a trial court’s decision to revoke probation. The Court held that, if the trial court has properly placed its findings on the record, the standard of appellate review for probation revocations is abuse of discretion with a presumption of reasonableness.

The Supreme Court next considered the specifics of Defendant’s case and the trial court’s decision to fully revoke his probation. The Court noted that the trial court properly placed its findings and reasoning on the record and that the Court of Criminal Appeals properly reviewed the trial court’s separate discretionary decisions to revoke probation and to order defendant to serve the remainder of his sentence in the Tennessee Department of Correction. After review, the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Criminal Appeals’ conclusion that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this case at Columbia Central High School in December as part of its SCALES (Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education For Students) project. To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Craig Dagnan, authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.