Despite Americans’ assumed right and human instinct to protect themselves in a frightening situation, the laws of self-defense in the U.S. are, in fact, complicated – and often controversial. This is largely because claiming self-defense, while meant to protect a victim in a worst-case scenario, can unfortunately be abused and misused to justify killing another individual.

This is where the laws of self-defense come in. Tennessee does have a stand your ground law and the right to protect yourself, but there are legal parameters you must operate within to avoid being charged with a criminal offense.

So what are the parameters for Tennessee residents? How can you legally protect yourself?

If you are facing penalties or prison time for using a weapon to defend yourself, our Nashville defense attorneys at The Cassell Firm are well-versed in Tennessee’s self-defense law and its complexities. Contact us today. 

What’s The Law for Self-Defense in Tennessee?

In the state of Tennessee, self-defense falls under the laws related to criminal offenses (Title 39) due to the grave nature of the situation. To determine whether self-defense can be a valid argument, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-611 considers the potential criminal actions of both parties: the intruder/perpetrator and the defender. 

According to Tennessee’s general provisions and justifications for self-defense, the individual claiming self-defense:

  • Must have a right to be where they are (residence, business, dwelling, or vehicle), and have no duty to retreat.
  • Must believe that force is immediately necessary to protect against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.
  • Must have a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, and that potential danger must be proven reasonable.

The above terms and requirements are a simple summary of the law that we will continue to expand on in this article.

However, even with this simple explanation, there are several immediate exceptions worth mentioning that would not apply under the self-defense law. These include (but are not limited to):

  • The individual who used defensive force cannot be engaged in unlawful activity.
  • The individual against whom force is used is also a lawful resident or has a right to be in the dwelling, business, residence, or vehicle (as an owner, leasee, or titleholder), given they are not prohibited from entering (e.g. by an order of protection or court order of no-contact).
  • The person against whom force is used is a law enforcement officer who identified themselves as such and was performing his or her official duties.

Further Defining Tennessee’s Self-Defense Law

As we mentioned before, Tennessee’s self-defense law requires that the individual claiming self-defense 1) has a right to be where they are, 2) has no duty to retreat, 3) believes force is necessary to protect themself or another person, and 4) that belief must be proven reasonable.

Each parameter is known by specific names, respectively: the Castle Doctrine, “Stand Your Ground,” deadly force, and reasonable fear. 

The Castle Doctrine

Tennessee’s Castle Doctrine is the law that justifies using force to defend one’s home or residence against an intruder who threatens immediate serious bodily harm or death. Even though Tennessee’s self-defense law does not mention the Castle Doctrine, specifically, its adoption of it can be found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-611(c).

A caveat to the Castle Doctrine is that the defender must feel their life is being threatened. For example, if an intruder threatens and pulls out a gun on a homeowner or runs toward the homeowner aggressively, the resident has grounds to protect themselves accordingly.

Tennessee “Stand Your Ground” Law

Building on the law of the Castle Doctrine, Tennessee is also one of 32 “stand your ground” states that allow individuals to defend themselves without attempting to run away first. Other states require that a retreat must be attempted first before putting up a fight to defend oneself.

Using Force, Deadly Force

In every aspect of self-defense, it is of the utmost importance to recognize that the defender is only permitted to use the level of force necessary to stop the perceived threat. In other words, being punched does not justify shooting an aggressor.

While using deadly force against someone should be a last resort, it is protected if the defender fears death or great bodily harm to themselves or someone else. This is where the reasonable nature of their fear must match the threat and be proven with evidence.

Defining Reasonable Belief

Also known as reasonable fear, the reasonable belief that a threat exists is a key factor in a self-defense case. A person claiming self-defense must have reasonably and honestly believed they had a reason to fear another person, and a jury considering the claim will seek to determine whether a reasonable person would have believed the same under similar circumstances.

Claiming self-defense truly is determined on a case-by-case basis. The Cassell Firm aggressively represents our clients and takes on even the most complicated cases. Contact us today.