The Tennessee Supreme Court decided a case recently, Tracy Rose Baker v. Tennessee, about whether a person is allowed to seek post-conviction relief from a judgment in a civil case where he or she was held in criminal contempt. The Court ultimately decided that criminal contempt does not equal a criminal conviction under Tennessee’s laws and, as a result, does not allow for post-conviction relief.
The case, Tracy Rose Baker v. Tennessee, concerns a woman who was involved in an especially nasty and lengthy divorce. Tracy Rose Baker and her former husband, Jeffrey Baker, traded contempt petitions against one another for months following the issuance of their divorce decree. In one hearing, Tracy signed an order where she admitted to eighteen acts of criminal contempt, including violations of orders of protection and temporary restraining orders. Baker pled guilty to the charges and agreed to serve 10 days for each count, for a total of 180 days to be served on probation.
Later, her former husband filed a petition seeking to revoke her probation, saying that Tracy had violated the terms of her probation. The trial court ultimately agreed and ordered Tracy to serve out the remainder of her 180-day sentence in the Sumner County jail.
Tracy eventually filed a petition for post-conviction relief, challenging her criminal contempt conviction. She claimed that the guilty pleas on all 18 counts should be set aside because of bias on the part of the trial judge and because no hearing was ever conducted to determine whether her admissions were knowing and voluntary. The trial court dismissed Tracy’s petition, saying that she had failed to state a claim under the Post-Conviction Procedure Act. The Court of Criminal Appeals similarly affirmed the dismissal and the case made its way before the Supreme Court.
The Court was tasked with deciding whether Tracy was entitled to seek post-conviction relief given the nature of her charges. The Court discussed the passage of Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Procedure Act and how the Act was designed to provide an avenue for litigating constitutional errors in Tennessee criminal cases. The original Act was intended to apply “to any person convicted of a crime.” The current version specifies that the Act entitles those who are “in custody under a sentence of a court of this state” the chance to file one petition for post-conviction relief.
In criminal contempt cases, sanctions are meant to punish past behavior. In these cases, the person held in contempt cannot shorten their sentence by simply complying with a court order. It is because of this that criminal contempt is often seen as a crime.
Despite this, the Court made clear that those convicted of criminal contempt (known as contemnors) are not entitled to the rights afforded to other criminal defendants. For instance, they are not entitled to a jury trial in many cases and also do not require an indictment and prosecution by the state. The Court further noted that Tennessee Code never defines contempt as a criminal offense.
The Court concluded that post-conviction relief is a remedy that is only available to those seeking relief from convictions of purely criminal offenses. It is not available to those challenging findings of criminal contempt that arose from civil cases. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Criminal appeals.
To read the full opinion, click here.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)