Most people know that they have the right to defend themselves from harm. However, the law does not allow you to justify violence by claiming self-defense in any given situation. It is important to understand the basics of self-defense under Tennessee law, both to prevent criminal charges and to defend against them.
The following is a brief overview regarding how Tennessee treats self-defense. To discuss how the law may apply to a specific situation, please contact Barnes and Fersten directly to consult with an experienced Knoxville criminal defense attorney.
How a Self-Defense Claim Works
Claiming self-defense means that you admit that you acted in violence toward another person, but you claim that you had legal justification for the violence. This is a common claim when someone is accused of assault or murder, and they allege that the harm was necessary to protect themselves from violence. There are some requirements for when you can lawfully claim self-defense:
- You were not engaging in illegal activities at the time
- You had the right to be in that location at that time
- You had a real honest belief that the threat of bodily harm was imminent and that your actions were necessary to protect you from the imminent harm
- Another reasonable person would have also feared imminent harm and believed the actions were necessary under the same circumstances
It is important to emphasize that you must prove you feared imminent harm, such as someone coming at you aggressively, swinging a punch, or driving toward you in their car as if to hit you. Self-defense would not be justified if someone threatened later violence against you. For example, if a person at a bar said they were going to fight you outside in 20 minutes, you would not be justified in using violence right then to prevent later harm.
In most cases, the other person must be the initial aggressor in the situation. If you push someone and start a fight and they push you back, you cannot lawfully continue to use violence to protect yourself from them. One exception to this requirement is if the other person substantially escalates the violence. If you push someone and then they pull out a gun, you can then protect yourself from deadly harm. Additionally, you may be able to claim self-defense if you start a fight, try to retreat from the fight, and the other person continues to act violently and pose an imminent threat of harm. If the other person is the initial aggressor, however, there is no duty to retreat before you act in self-defense in Tennessee like there is in some other states, due to the “Stand Your Ground” law.
Using Deadly Force in Self-Defense
In some cases, an act of self-defense may cause or threaten death to another person. Deadly force is only justified to protect against serious bodily harm or death. For instance, if someone swings a punch at you, the law does not allow you to shoot or stab them to protect yourself. The deadly force must be proportional to the harm feared.
Tennessee does have a law called the “Castle Doctrine,” which allows people to use deadly force under certain circumstances to protect themselves in certain locations. The Castle Doctrine is based on the idea that your home is your castle and you should be able to protect yourself in your home and similar location. The Castle Doctrine creates a legal presumption that self-defense may be justified if someone forcibly enters the following locations:
- A home that you own, lease, or in which you are an invited guest
- A business establishment that you own or in which you work as an employee or an agent of the owner to protect the premises
- A building or dwelling of any kind with a roof over it that is intended for use by people, including mobile homes and tents
- Any type of motorized vehicle designed for people to use on public roads to transport people or items
In order for the Castle Doctrine to apply, you must be lawfully in the location and you must know or reasonably believe that the other person unlawfully entered. The law does not permit deadly force in the following situations:
- The victim of the deadly force had the right to enter the home or location
- The victim of the deadly force was trying to remove a child or person over which they have legal custody or guardianship
- The person using deadly force was engaging in unlawful activity or using the building to conduct unlawful acts
- The victim of the deadly force was a law enforcement officer entering the building or operating a roadblock or traffic stop as part of their duties as an officer, and the person using force had reason to believe the victim was an officer
If someone has the right to enter a home or building, the Castle Doctrine does not protect you if you use deadly force against them. You also cannot provoke the person into entering the home of using force. Deadly force is never warranted to protect items of personal property or to get a trespasser off a property if they are not trying to enter the building or its dire
A successful self-defense claim requires careful strategizing and presentation of evidence. If police arrest you, it may be tempting to tell them you acted in self-defense right then and there. However, if you cannot later prove self-defense, your claim may be used as an admission of a violent act. Instead, always call a criminal defense lawyer before answering any questions or making any claims to police or prosecutors.
Find Out How Our Knoxville Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help You
At Barnes and Fersten, we regularly represent clients facing violent criminal charges, identifying all possible defenses such as self-defense claims. After an arrest, it is always wise to exercise your right to an attorney immediately and contact our office for assistance. We can also help if you already face criminal charges and will work to reach the most favorable outcome possible.
Attorney At Law, Managing Partner
Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUI, criminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.