Written By: Claudia Coco, Senior Editor
The Supreme Court of Tennessee considered the case of State of Tennessee v. Craig Dagnan on December 1, 2021. Dagnan appealed his revocation of probation, and while he conceded that the revocation of probation was proper, he claimed that the “trial court abused its discretion by ordering him to serve the balance of his sentence in the Tennessee Department of Corrections.”[i] The Court took this case as an opportunity to clarify the standard for the revocation of probation. The Court ultimately held that the probation of revocation process is a two-step consideration of the trial court. “The first step is to determine whether to revoke probation, and the second is to determine the appropriate consequences upon revocation.”[ii] The case history is as follows.
In July of 2014, Dagnan was accused of a Class D felony, theft over $1,000 but less than $10,000. Dagnan pleaded guilty to that offense in January of 2015. Dagnan “received a six-year sentence as a Range II offender, with five years, six months, and nine days suspended to supervised probation,” and he was ordered to pay $1,250 in restitution and to complete over 100 hours of community service, and not to contact the victim.[iii] Dagnan’s first violation of probation happened four months later because he failed to pay restitution, then he failed to show up to the hearing and was arrested. At a subsequent revocation hearing, Dagnan was sentenced to 90 days in local confinement.
Five months later, Dagnan violated his probation for a second time when he failed his drug screen by testing positive for methamphetamine and failed to pay restitution. Dagnan failed to report to his supervisor as directed by a trial court summons. Dagnan then received a subsequent revocation hearing, where his probation was revoked partially, and he was ordered to serve eight months in local confinement.
In May of 2018, Dagnan had his probation revoked for a third time. Dagnan’s probation was revoked because “he failed to abide by curfew, left the state without permission, incurring a new criminal charge—driving with a suspended license—in Georgia, and failing to report the new charge.”[iv] This time his probation was revoked to serve 120 days in confinement, attend anger management courses, and prohibited him from driving without a valid license as additional probation conditions.
In November of 2018, Dagnan was subject to a fourth probation revocation process for failure to comply with the probation conditions set in May of 2018. After Dagnan’s hearing in January 2019, “the trial court entered an order partially revoking Defendant’s probation to serve eleven months and twenty-nine days in confinement.”[v] Dagnan received a furlough to be released from jail to Freedom House Ministries for drug treatment. A term of the furlough included, “that the defendant was required to report back to the Marion County Jail within four hours if he left the treatment facility for any reason prior to the completion of the program.”[vi]
In June of 2019, Dagnan violated his probation for a fifth time. The treatment program dismissed Dagnan, and Dagnan failed to report to the jail within four hours of release of the program. Additionally, Dagnan “was charged in Georgia with a misdemeanor failure to appear,” and “he also allegedly failed to pay supervision fees, courts costs, and/or fines, and failed to report his arrest.”[vii] The probation revocation hearing was held in December of 2019. After listening to the defendant’s proof, the court instructed that it was conducting a two-step analysis. First, the court made a finding “that defendant violated his probation by failing to report back to jail following his discharge from the treatment facility and absconding.” The second finding “was based on the evidence presented at the hearing and numerous factors including Defendant’s character, prior criminal history, mental health and addiction, and the nature of the offense.”[viii] The court stated that regardless of whether Dagnan was properly discharged from the treatment facility he knew that he had to report to the jail within four hours of release. The court in his findings stated, “Mr. Dagnan, I really only have one option at this point just based upon the criminal history and all of the chances that you’ve been given.”[ix] At the conclusion of the hearing, Dagnan’s probation was revoked in full.
At the Criminal Court of Appeals level, the court found that the trial court judge did not abuse his discretion in revoking the probation in full and ordering the defendant to serve the remainder of his sentence. There was one concurring opinion from Judge Timothy Easter, in which he stated that the statute does not require additional findings of fact or an additional hearing, it is simply sufficient to find that there was a violation of probation.
The Tennessee Supreme Court took this opportunity to clarify the standard. The Supreme Court clarified that probation revocation is a two-step consideration. Clarifying that the first step is to determine whether to revoke probation and the second is to determine the appropriate consequences upon revocation. The trial court does not have to conduct an additional hearing to make these findings. The trial court can make these findings at the revocation hearing entitled to the defendant by law. The Court clarified that “these are two distinct discretionary decisions, both of which must be reviewed and addressed on appeal.”[x] The Court addressed that these additional factual findings facilitate meaningful appellate review. It allows the appellate court to look at factors the trial court reviewed when making a discretionary decision, when reviewing it under an abuse of discretion standard.
The Tennessee Supreme Court found that the appellate court is to conduct an abuse of discretion standard for both steps. The standard of review to be used by the appellate court is “abuse of discretion with a presumption of reasonableness so long as the trial court places sufficient findings and the reasons for its decisions as to the revocation and the consequences on record.”[xi] The court stated that “it is not necessary the trial court’s findings to be particularly lengthy or detailed but only sufficient for the appellate court to conduct a meaningful review of the decision.”[xii] The reasoning for the decision is to promote meaningful appellate review and public confidence. If there are no factual findings made by the trial court, then the “appellate court may conduct a de novo review if the record is sufficiently developed to do so, or the appellate court may remand the case to the trial court to make such findings.”[xiii]
This decision requires that trial court judges conduct a two-step process when conducting a revocation hearing. By not only finding that there was a violation of probation but requiring that the judge make factual findings regarding the consequences of the violation of probation, which allows the appellate court to conduct a meaningful review of the revocation. In addition, it serves a purpose to let the defendant know why his probation is being revoked and the factors that the judge is weighing and considering when making the decision regarding punishment. Finally, it inspires public confidence in the trial court’s decision because it allows for more transparency in the process. This decision allows everyone to see the reasoning for the judge’s decision, and it ultimately helps the appellate court when reviewing the case under an abuse of discretion standard. The appellate court will no longer have to guess what the trial court was thinking at the time probation was revoked, now the findings will on the record for the court to review.
[i] State v. Dagnan, 641 S.W.3d 751, 756, 757 (Tenn. 2022)
[ii] Id. at 757.
[iii] Id. at 752.
[iv] Id. at 753.
[vii] Id. at 754.
[ix] Id.; See also Id. at 759 (“The transcript of the revocation hearing included six pages of oral findings by the trial judge. The trial court considered Defendant’s repeated violations, his addiction, and the nature of his most recent violation. It noted that, regardless of whether Defendant was properly or wrongfully discharged from the treatment facility, he ‘knew what was expected of him’ and deliberately absconded. Speaking to defendant expressly considered whether to “revoke you in full… or give you another chance or [into some kind of treatment facility.’ Ultimately the court emphasized the lack of success in giving the defendant multiple chances to comply with the terms of probation in the past and the seriousness of his deliberate failure to report back to jail in choosing to order Defendant ot serve his sentence in incarceration.”).
[x] Id. at 757.
[xi] Id. at 759.
On June 4, 2018, Douglas Linvil