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Forfeiture Procedural Requirements Require Strict Compliance in Tennessee

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that in forfeiture proceedings, the governmental agency seeking forfeiture must present affirmative proof that it has complied with both the procedural and substantive requirements of the forfeiture statutes.

The ruling came in a suit filed by Tennessee prisoner Charles D. Sprunger, who faced forfeiture of his home after a repair technician found over 100 images of child pornography on his desktop computer. The technician called police, and Sprunger was charged and found guilty by a jury of sexual exploitation of a minor.

At first, no legal action was taken after the pornography was found on Sprunger’s computer. Ten months later, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Detective John Haynes obtained a forfeiture warrant for Sprunger’s home. With the warrant in hand on May 20, 2009, Haynes filed an “Abstract of Suit Notice of Lien Lis Pendens” with the county’s Register of Deeds; the warrant filed with the lien stated Sprunger violated the law by “selling and distributing child pornography.”

In July 2009, Sprunger was indicted for sexual exploitation of a minor by knowingly possessing over 100 images of child porn. A little over a month later he was informed his residence was seized. Following his conviction, the court ordered Sprunger divested of the $31,606.26 in proceeds remaining after his house was sold at a foreclosure auction.

Sprunger represented himself pro se during the foreclosure proceedings, and his appeal was denied. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted his request for review, and found that Sprunger had attempted to raise procedural issues when challenging the forfeiture. Specifically, he asserted in a letter, which the trial court treated as an answer, that he was not provided instructions on how to fight the forfeiture or provide the affidavit used to obtain the forfeiture warrant as required by statute, the Supreme Court said fairness dictated it review those issues.

It then noted the Tennessee Constitution disfavors forfeiture, which requires forfeiture statutes be strictly construed. It noted further that “the forfeiture proceedings that occurred in this case bear little resemblance to the procedures set forth in the applicable statutes.” The Court acknowledges that several appellate rulings had excused the state’s failure to comply with the procedural requirements for civil procedure, but it said those cases trend in the wrong direction, inclining away from strict construction of forfeiture statutes, such as “exercise of police powers…requires black letter compliance to procedural requirements.”

This is especially so where most contestants must act pro se and they do so telephonically from prison. The court vacated the forfeiture and ordered the proceeds from the sale of Sprunger’s home to be returned to him. The state was also taxed with costs of the appeal. A jailhouse lawyer and PLN subscriber assisted Sprunger in filing his suit and litigating it until counsel was appointed. See: Tennessee v. Sprunger, 458 S.W.3d 482 (Tenn. 2015).

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Related legal case

Tennessee v. Sprunger