Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Sentencing Enhancements For Offenses Committed In Certain Drug-Free Zones

June 1, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld sentences imposed by the Hardin County Circuit Court for drug offenses that occurred in a drug-free zone.  Offenses committed in drug-free zones, most often around schools, provide for enhanced punishment above that for offenses committed in other locations.  The drug-free zone in this case was comprised of the area around a public park rather than a school.  The Court determined that the sentences for such offenses, although not enhanced by one classification level like cases involving drug-free zones around schools, properly included mandatory minimum periods of confinement.

When law enforcement officers searched a Hardin County home in June 2018, they found various narcotics.  Douglas E. Linville was one of several individuals in the home at the time of the search.  A jury convicted Mr. Linville of multiple drug offenses.  Because the home was located within 1,000 feet of the Savannah City Park, the jury determined that the offenses occurred in a drug-free zone.

Tennessee law provides for heightened penalties for certain drug offenses if they take place in a drug-free zone.  The heightened penalties include enhancing the sentence classification for such offenses and requiring offenders to serve mandatory minimum periods of confinement.  The original drug-free-zone law addressed the area around elementary, middle and secondary schools.  However, by the time of Mr. Linville’s offenses, the law had been expanded to address the area around a preschool, child care agency, public library, recreational center, or park.  The question presented in Mr. Linville’s case was which of the heightened penalties the amended law imposed if the drug-free zone was related to a public park.  The trial court ordered sentences that included mandatory minimum periods of confinement, but the court did not enhance the offenses by one classification.  The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, also ordered a one-classification sentence enhancement.

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals with respect to the one-classification sentence enhancement.  The Court determined that when the drug-free-zone law was amended to include public parks, the legislature chose not to impose the one-classification sentence enhancement that would apply if the offense occurred in a drug-free zone related to a school.  However, the Court also determined that the legislature chose to retain the same mandatory minimum periods of confinement for drug-free-zone offenses related to a public park as for those related to a school.  Accordingly, the Court reinstated the sentences ordered by the trial court.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Douglas E. Linville, authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.