Interesting case out of the Tennessee Supreme Court yesterday. A woman in Memphis (everything happens in Memphis!) squatted in a $2 million dollar house for one week. Her sentence? 20 years in prison. The woman, who claimed to be a sovereign citizen, attempted to obtain the property by filing "difficult to decipher documents" with the local clerk's office. (They were SO difficult to decipher that the clerk literally filed them in a "miscellaneous" file.) She moved into the house and changed the locks. The bank was mad, as banks tend to be, so they sought criminal theft charges against her. Because of the value of the house (over $250,000) she was charged and convicted at trial of an A felony, as well as C felony aggravated burglary. The Court noted that, " The damage to the East Memphis home was minimal, and the duration of Defendant’s physical seizure and occupation of the real property short lived, but sufficient evidence supports the jury’s findings on these issues. "
Yesterday, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld her conviction, finding that the Tennessee theft statute applies to real estate and makes no distinction between movable and immovable property as the Model Penal Code does. The Court further found that the legislature intended the theft statute to cover real property the same way it applies to other property.
Notably, the defendant argued that she was limited during cross-examination as to what her attorney could ask witnesses about adverse possession, and defense counsel was not permitted to argue the theory of adverse possession in closing argument. The Supreme Court determined that counsel had not been unfairly limited during cross-examination and that closing argument was not evidence, so the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
The Court found that the defendant intended to deprive the bank of its property because of those indecipherable documents filed at the clerk's office, so there was sufficient evidence to support the jury verdict. (She also put signs up outside the home that stated it was now her home.) Essentially, for every day she spent in the house, she was sentenced to a 34-month sentence.
Read the full opinion here.
It’s rare to get a reversal in the criminal law world; the law is written to keep convictions in place. Finality is revered. But last Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a case that I had the privilege of trying last year with a wonderful attorney. I hope when I'm 65 I'm still co-chairing trials, because there is no better way to gain knowledge and expertise than from others.
It was a great experience and, as usual, I learned an important lesson: all requests for jury instructions MUST be in writing. Tennessee statutory law (Tenn. Code Ann. 40-18-110c) REQUIRES all jury instructions be in writing. Failure to do so means that, on appeal, the appellate court will only assess the error under a plain-error standard.
During the trial, there was testimony that the defendant hit the complaining witness in the face during the alleged events of the evening. The defense requested that assault-offensive/provocative conduct be charged as a lesser-included offense and incorporated into the jury instructions. This request was made orally and discussed on the record, but it was not put in written form. The trial court held that the proof did not support the lesser-included offense of assault and denied the defense request to charge the jury with assault as a lesser-included option.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, after some hard work by the appellate attorneys, reversed under plain error and remanded for a new trial. They disagreed, and found that the proof as introduced at trial would have supported such a lesser-included charge to the jury.
To read their opinion, click here.
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