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Tennessee Adopts a (Limited) Good-Faith Exception to the Warrant Requirement

reynolds-case-screenshotOn November 3, 2016, Tennessee joined the ranks of over a dozen states that have adopted a limited good faith exception to the search warrant requirement in a Tennessee DUI case that involves a warrantless blood draw.[1] A blood draw for the purpose of determining a person’s blood alcohol content is a search under the Fourth Amendment, and a warrant is required unless an exception to the search warrant requirement applies.[2] For example, some exceptions include consent to the blood draw by the defendant or by “exigent circumstances” (the need is urgent and it is impractical or impossible to obtain a search warrant quickly enough).[3] The results of a warrantless blood draw that does not fall within the few and narrowly defined exceptions to the search warrant requirement are not admissible in court.

A new Tennessee Supreme Court decision has changed this general rule that has been practiced for decades. Now, in limited circumstances, blood test results may be admissible in Tennessee even in the absence of an exception to the warrant requirement. In State v. Reynolds, the Tennessee Supreme Court adopted a narrow good-faith exception to the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Tennessee Supreme Court stated,

We adopt only the Davis good-faith exception, which “represents a small fragment of federal good-faith jurisprudence.” Id. Furthermore, the Davis good-faith exception we adopt applies only when the law enforcement officers’ action is in objectively reasonable good faith reliance on “binding appellate precedent” that “specifically authorizes a particular police practice.” Davis, 564 U.S. at 241, 131 S.Ct. 2419. Persuasive precedent from other jurisdictions is not a sufficient basis for applying the Davis good-faith exception. Lindquist, 869 N.W.2d at 876. Nor does the Davis good-faith exception permit law enforcement officers to “extend the law to areas in which no precedent exists or the law is unsettled.” Id. at 876–77 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Davis, 564 U.S. at 250–51, 131 S.Ct. 2419 (Sotomayor, J., concurring in the judgment)). Our holding today merely reflects the reality that the exclusionary rule does not serve its central purpose of deterring police misconduct “when applied to evidence obtained during a search conducted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent.” Id. at 877. We need not and do not here decide whether to embrace any of the other good-faith exceptions to the exclusionary rule the Supreme Court has adopted. Id.[4]

In Reynolds, the court held that obtaining a blood sample without a warrant was done by the officer in objectively good-faith reliance on binding precedent. The arrest of Ms. Reynolds occurred prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Missouri v. McNeely,[5] which differed in its interpretation from the Tennessee courts interpretation of another U.S. Supreme Court case, Schmerber,[6] as establishing a broad categorical rule that the natural dissipation of alcohol within the bloodstream always presents an exigent circumstance, justifying a warrantless blood draw in every drunk driving case. See, e.g., Humphreys, 70 S.W.3d 752, 761.[7]

Although the Reynolds exception is intended to be very narrow and is not meant to become a blanket good-faith exception—that is, it only applies when the officer was relying on binding precedent at the time that was later overturned—the dissent points out that the “binding precedent” relied upon in Reynolds was not as clear-cut as the majority opinion implies.[8] Rather, the “binding precedent” case was decided on other grounds, and the Court of Criminal Appeals merely mentioned in dicta, citing an unpublished case, that the dissipation of blood falls within the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement.[9] The dissenting Justice voiced her concern: “Given the prevailing confusion surrounding Schmerber, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ dicta did not rise to the level of “binding judicial precedent,” particularly for the purpose of adopting a good-faith exception [to the Constitutional protections guaranteed to our citizens].”[10]

It remains to be seen whether the Reynolds decision will open the door to further erosions of constitutional rights with loose interpretations of “binding precedent” or if it truly will be a very limited exception for warrantless blood draws taken prior to the Missouri v. McNeely decision.

[1] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, slip op. at *30, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016)

[2] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, slip op. at *20, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016)(citing Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011) (stating that under the Fourth Amendment “a warrant must generally be secured”); State v. Meeks, 262 S.W.3d 710, 722 (Tenn. 2008) (“[A]s a general matter, law enforcement officials cannot conduct a search [or effect a seizure] without having first obtained a valid warrant.” (internal citations omitted)).

[3] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, slip op. at *21, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016)(citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392-93 (1978); State v. Meeks, 262 S.W.3d 710, 722 (Tenn. 2008)).

[4] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, slip op. at *20, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016).

[5] Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013).

[6] Schmerber v. California, 86 S.Ct. 1826 (1966)

[7] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, slip op. at *20, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016).

[8] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, Dissenting Opinion slip op. at *4, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016).

[9] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, Dissenting Opinion slip op. at *4, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016)(citing State v. Humphreys, 70 S.W.3d 752, 760-61 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2001)).

[10] State v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 6525856, Dissenting Opinion slip op. at *4-5, — S.W.3d — (Tenn. 2016).

About the Author: Steven Oberman has been licensed in Tennessee since 1980, and successfully defended over 2,500 DUI defendants.  Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Steve served as Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. (NCDD) and currently serves as chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers DUI Committee.  Steve was the first lawyer in Tennessee to be Board Certified as a DUI Defense Specialist by the NCDD.

He is the author of DUI: The Crime & Consequences in Tennessee, updated annually since 1991 (Thomson-West), and co-author with Lawrence Taylor of the national treatise, Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen).  Steve has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee Law School since 1993 and has received a number of prestigious awards for his faculty contributions.  He is a popular international speaker, having spoken at legal seminars in 30 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries.

If you would like to contact the author, please visit:

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Steve Oberman

Steve Oberman

Since graduating from the University of Tennessee Law School in 1980, Mr. Oberman has become established as a national authority on the intricacies of DUI defense law. Steve is a former Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, co-author of a national treatise ("Drunk Driving Defense" published by Aspen/Wolters-Kluwer), and author of "DUI: The Crime and Consequences in Tennessee" (published by Thomson-Reuters/West). He has taught thousands of lawyers, judges, and members of the general public about the intricacies of this crime. Steve was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach American Criminal Law and American Trial Advocacy at the University of Latvia School of Law in 2019; in 2023 taught for a semester as a visiting professor at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) Faculty of Law in Budapest, Hungary; and as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Law in 2024. Steve has also presented at a number of judicial conferences in the United States and Canada as well as for law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Czech Republic Police Academy. As a Tennessee DUI attorney, Mr. Oberman has successfully defended over two thousand clients charged with Driving Under the Influence of alcohol and/or drugs. In 2006, Mr. Oberman became the first DUI lawyer in Tennessee to be recognized by the National College for DUI Defense as a Board Certified Specialist in the area of DUI Defense law.

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