Attorney seeks to have Carter County search warrant in meth case invalidated

John Thompson • Oct 4, 2013 at 9:19 AM

ELIZABETHTON — A suppression hearing in Carter County Criminal Court on Thursday featured testimony by Circuit Court Clerk John Paul Mathes. a contention that a search warrant is invalid because it gave the wrong address and other problems and an argument that Sessions Court Bench Clerk Lori Pierce cannot sign warrants as a deputy clerk. A decision has not yet been reached on the arguments.

These unusual events were part of a hearing in the case of Richie Lane Caraway. They came out of a motion filed by Assistant Public Defender Melanie Sellers to suppress evidence obtained from the allegedly invalid search warrant. Caraway is charged with initiation of a process to manufacture methamphetamine, three counts of promotion of methamphetamine and maintaining a dwelling in which narcotics are manufactured or sold.

Judge Robert Cupp said his file for the case was incomplete and he had not had a chance to review the arguments before the hearing. He postponed a decision until he could conduct his own research on the arguments and the case law cited.

Sellers’ main argument was a strong criticism of the correctness of the search warrant issued by Sessions Court Judge John Walton that was issued Feb. 20, and a previous capias/bench warrant issued by Pierce on Nov. 16.

Some of her criticisms of the documents were that they gave the address of Caraway’s residence as 317 Heaton Creek Road instead of the correct address of 323 Heaton Creek Road, that the capias names Caraway as a defendant but fails to list the name of a person whose body is to be taken into custody, that the capias was not signed by a magistrate or court clerk and that a search of the residence prior to the issuance of a search warrant was unnecessary.

Sgt. Harmon Duncan testified the mix-up on the address was because there were three houses on the same lot and none had house numbers. He said the three mailboxes for the houses were also together.

Deputy James Stevens testified he went to Caraway’s residence Feb. 19 to serve the capias/bench warrant. He said he knocked on what appeared to be the front door of the unusually oriented house. When he got no answer, he decided to walk around to the rear door. As he was walking, he said he came across several bottles with a white residue in them.

Two of the bottles had plastic tubing sticking out of the caps. They were about 15 feet from the house. From his experience and training, Stevens said he recognized the bottles were part of a clandestine methamphetamine lab.

Stevens said he called Duncan about the finding. He said Duncan told him to wait there for him. Stevens said he waited there for about 30 minutes. When Duncan arrived, he verified the finding as a meth lab and also noticed spent rounds of ammunition around the house. Caraway was a suspect in a burglary on Natures Trail Road that had taken place a week before in which about nine guns were stolen, police said.

Duncan expressed concern that the Methamphetamine Task Force called to the scene to clean up the bottles might be in danger from a gunman in the house. A search of the house was conducted. Duncan said that in plain view inside the house were several of the items used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Sellers said Stevens had not been fired at during the 30 minutes he waited for Duncan to arrive and she said the officers were not at the address on the capias/bench warrant, so the justification to enter the house for their safety was not valid.

Sellers’ contention that Pierce cannot sign arrest warrants as a deputy clerk is based on Mathes’ queries to the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Advisory Service in 2007. Mathes wanted to know if Pierce could still sign as a deputy clerk after she had transferred from his office to serve under Walton’s supervision.

Mathes’ query was answered by CTAS legal consultant Jeff Metzger, who said a clerk is authorized to appoint deputies “with the full power to transact all the business of such clerk.” He said the clerk is responsible for supervising the deputy. “Thus, a deputy clerk who has been transferred from the supervision of the court clerk is no longer a deputy court clerk, but an employee of his or her new supervisor.”

Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks countered Sellers’ argument by providing a document in which Walton appointed Pierce as a temporary judicial commissioner in 2007. Sellers replied by saying that Tennessee law gives the power to appoint judicial commissioners to the county legislative body, not the judiciary. Brooks said state law makes an exception for some counties and allows judges to appoint judicial commissioners. He did not immediately know if Carter County was one of the exceptions.

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