Statute Regarding Community Supervision of Sex Offenders Did Not Confer Private Right of Action

In Hale v. State, No. E2016-00249-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a negligence case because it was based on the failure of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) to ensure compliance with a certain statute, and that statute did not “confer a private right of action.”

Plaintiff’s daughter was murdered by Terry Releford while she was married to Mr. Releford and pregnant with his child. Before this marriage, Mr. Releford had spent time in a Tennessee prison for several crimes, including three counts of aggravated rape. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-524 “requires that those convicted of certain offenses, including aggravated rape, remain subject to community supervision for life.” Mr. Releford’s judgment of conviction, however, did not include the community supervision requirement.

At some point during Mr. Releford’s incarceration, a TDOC employee sent a letter to the District Attorney’s office asking for a corrected judgment. No response was received, and the judgment was never corrected. Mr. Releford was released with no community supervision requirement, subsequently met plaintiff’s daughter, and murdered her less than a year later.

Plaintiff brought this suit in the Tennessee Claims Commission “alleging a cause of action for negligent care, custody, and control of persons pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 9-8-307(a)(1)(E).” Plaintiff asserted that TDOC “had committed negligence by failing to correct the judgment to reflect the requirement of community supervision for life pursuant to section 39-13-524.” Plaintiff argued that part of the reason that his daughter felt she could trust Mr. Releford, and part of the reason that no family members intervened in their relationship, was that Mr. Releford was not required to be on probation. Plaintiff asserted that his daughter felt that the lack of probation or other supervision reflected on the severity of Mr. Releford’s previous crimes.

The commissioner hearing the case dismissed the case, “finding that while couched as a claim for negligent control of persons, the claim was actually one for negligent deprivation of statutory rights for failure to comply with section 39-13-524, which does not confer a private right of action against a governmental entity.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this dismissal.

The Court stated that while they were “extremely sympathetic with Claimant,” they found that the claim presented was “clearly predicated upon the TDOC’s alleged failure to ensure compliance with section 39-13-524.” The Court held:

Claimant made no other allegations that the TDOC was otherwise negligent in the care, custody, and control of Mr. Releford. In such cases, the gravamen of the claim must be recognized as one for negligent deprivation of statutory rights. Section 39-13-524 does not confer a private right of action. Claimant does not assert otherwise. Accordingly, we affirm the dismissal of the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

(internal citation omitted).

We also note that in addition to murdering his wife (the plaintiff’s daughter), Mr. Releford also raped her minor daughter. It would be interesting to see what claims could be made (and be viable) regarding any responsibility the state might have for that crime, especially in light of the fact that the claims commission pointed out in its reasoning that the murder was not reasonably foreseeable and that “the statute on which claimant bases his claim is directed at preventing the recurrence of sexually based offenses by those convicted previously of that sort of crime.”