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Certified Question of Law Must be Dispositive to be Reviewable

Tennessee has a procedure under which a certified question of law may be reviewed on direct appeal even when a criminal defendant has pled guilty. But the requirements for properly preserving a certified question of law are strictly construed. It is not uncommon for Tennessee appellate courts to decline review due to concluding the requirements have not been met. There is generally no right of appeal from a guilty plea. In a conditional guilty plea where a party seeks to reserve a right of appeal of a particular legal issue, one of the primary requirements is that the issue be dispositive of the case. In the recent case of State v. Thomas, E2012-01956-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 8-30-2013), the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals declined review of a certified question of law regarding the constitutionality of a local ordinance, concluding the issue was not dispositive of whether the vehicle stop in question was reasonable.

In the Thomas case, the Defendant pled guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to sell, while attempting to reserve for appellate review the issue of the validity of a local ordinance, which provided the basis for the initial stop which led to the discovery of the evidence. At the trial court hearing, both sides argued about whether the conclusion that the ordinance was invalid would necessarily render the stop unreasonable. The Defense position was that if the ordinance is invalid (they argued it was preempted by state law), there was no basis for the stop. The State agreed that the suspected ordinance violation was the only basis for the stop, but argued that it is reasonable for police officers to attempt to enforce existing laws, even if the law is later invalidated. Police officers are not expected to have to predict which existing laws will later be invalidated by a court. So arguably, attempting to enforce existing laws does not create an unreasonable seizure, even if the law in question is later invalidated by a court.

Yet, both sides and the trial court agreed in certifying the question of law for appeal, that the issue of the validity of the ordinance was dispositive of the case. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not agree. In their view, the issue of whether the ordinance was valid did not completely resolve the case, as even if they concluded it was not valid, there would be the remaining question of whether the stop was still reasonable and constitutional. Because the question of whether the ordinance was preempted by state law (and therefore invalid) was the only question certified for appeal, and because the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that question was not dispositive of the outcome of the case, the certified question was not properly preserved and the Court declined review.

For more information on whether a particular legal issue is dispositive of the outcome of a case, contact Hindman & Associates.

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