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Tennessee Supreme Court lowers search warrant standards

The one thing you can say for sure about Tennessee’s criminal justice system is that nothing is set in stone. All of our civil rights and protections against police abuses are subject to change by the Legislature and the courts. When faced with a new legal controversy, the judge in a criminal case may have to reinterpret an existing law or rule a law invalid in some way.

That is why, if you are ever charged with a crime, it’s vital that your defense attorney be familiar with the latest changes in the law -- and how those changes affect your case.

Confidential informants and search warrants

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Supreme Court lowered the standard by which police in the state can get a search warrant based on a confidential informant. The court’s written opinion said the move would make the law “much more consistent” with the rest of the U.S., because a majority of states have already adopted the easier standard.

Old standard vs. new standard

Prior to the ruling, Tennessee law required judges considering a search warrant request used a two-step test to prove that the confidential informant had 1) a reasonable basis of knowledge about the alleged criminal activity, and 2) seems reasonably trustworthy for the police to rely upon.

The new standard, “totality of the circumstances,” could easily be seen as a lowering of the bar. It is a much less specific standard and does not require police to establish their informant’s credibility.

One defense lawyer noted to The Tennessean that confidential informants tend to be criminal suspects themselves. People in this position often are motivated to exaggerate or outright lie about other suspects in order to get a plea deal in their own cases.

Any time it becomes easier for law enforcement to get search warrants, individuals’ rights are affected. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unlawful searches and seizures, but lawmakers and courts have often expanded the government’s reach. 

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