A certified question of law is a specific and limited appeal of a legal issue in a criminal case. It may arise where a criminal defendant, after having lost a pre-trial motion on a critical piece of evidence, proceeds to plead guilty, with the agreement of the state and the trial court that the certified question may be reserved for appeal. The question must be dispositive of the case (resulting in a different outcome if resolved favorably to the defendant) and must be stated specifically. The question must be on the judgment or attached to the judgment, and certified by the trial court as dispositive of the case. There are strict requirements which must be met to preserve a certified question and it is not uncommon for these appeals to be dismissed due to the failure to properly preserve and state the question. The case of State v. Gephart, W2011-02225-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 1-16-2013) is a recent example of one of these appeals being dismissed without reaching the merits.
The Defendant in the Gephart case pled guilty to driving under the influence (DUI) after an adverse ruling by the trial court on a motion to suppress evidence. The Defendant's vehicle had been stopped by a patrol officer who observed the vehicle pull abruptly out of the parking lot of a Memphis area night club and drive along the center lane (as opposed to in a designated lane of traffic). The Defendant sought to suppress all evidence obtained from the stop, arguing that the stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Upon a trial court ruling that the stop was reasonable, the Defendant pled guilty, and attempted to reserve the issue of the stop as certified question of law for appeal, with the consent of the state and the trial court.
However, rather than a narrow question articulating the arguments relied upon at the suppression hearing, the certified question was stated in more general terms about whether the state met its burden of showing the stop was lawful. The Court of Criminal Appeals declined review and dismissed the appeal, concluding that the question was not specific and narrow enough for review and did not even refer to the more specific arguments made at the suppression hearing. Furthermore, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that addressing the question more specifically in the appellate brief does not correct the problem of the question not being more specifically and narrowly stated in the question incorporated in the judgment.
For more information on reserving a certified question of law for appeal in a criminal case, contact Hindman & Associates.