What Is An Affirmative Defense To A Criminal Charge?

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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The presumption of innocence is one of the most important principles in the American criminal justice system. When police and prosecutors bring a charge, they have the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state cannot prove every element of the selected charge beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant is not guilty.

Notably, there are some limited circumstances in which a defendant may be acquitted even if the prosecution can technically prove all of the elements of the crime. This is done by raising a successful affirmative defense. In this article, our Knoxville criminal defense lawyers provide a guide to the most important things you need to know about affirmative defenses in criminal cases.

Affirmative Defense: Defined

As defined by the Cornell Legal Information Institute, an affirmative defense is a specialized type of legal defense that, if raised successfully, can “negate criminal liability or civil liability.” In other words, an affirmative defense is a type of excuse or justification of the allegations. Essentially, it allows a defendant to consent that the alleged criminal violation may have occurred, but that there should be no criminal liability because of extenuating circumstances.

Affirmative Defenses Create A Shifting Burden Of Proof

Prosecutors have the burden of proving a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt. However, with an affirmative defense, the burden of proof shifts to the other side. Prosecutors are not required to “disprove” an affirmative defense. It is the responsibility of the defendant to prove that an justifiable affirmative defense applies to the case. For this reason, it is crucial that a defendant has access to all of the information and evidence that they will need to raise an effective affirmative defense. The defendant must introduce the relevant evidence into court.

Common Examples Of Affirmative Defenses In Tennessee

There are several different types of affirmative defenses that can be raised in a criminal case in Tennessee. Depending on the specific nature of the charge in question, you may be able to raise any of the following affirmative defenses: 

  • Self Defense: Perhaps the most well-known example of an affirmative defense is self defense. In Tennessee, self defense can be used as an affirmative defense to challenge a wide range of criminal charges, including assault, battery, domestic violence, and homicide. You may be able to excuse potential criminal liability on the grounds of self defense if you had a reasonable belief that you were in imminent danger and took justified action to protect yourself or another person.
  • Insanity: A plea of insanity is another example of an affirmative defense in Tennessee. In some circumstances, a person deemed unable to understand the consequences of their actions may not be criminally liable. There are strict rules and procedures for using an insanity defense.
  • Statute of Limitations: In Tennessee, most criminal charges are subject to a strict statute of limitations. If police and prosecutors do not take action in time, the case can be dismissed. However, statute of limitations is an affirmative defense—meaning the defendant has to raise it.

You Must Raise An Affirmative Defense In A Timely Manner

One of the key things to know about affirmative defenses is that they must be raised in a timely manner. A defendant cannot raise an affirmative defense at the last second. Under Tennessee law (TN Code § 39-11-204(c)(1)), an individual who intends to use an affirmative defense must notify the prosecution “no later than ten (10) days before trial” or at the time called for by the court.

Timing is important: If you fail to raise an affirmative defense in a timely manner, you could miss out on your opportunity to use that defense. If you are considering raising an affirmative defense in a criminal case, it is crucial that you consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after charges are filed.

Call Our Knoxville, TN Criminal Defense Attorneys

At The Barnes and Fersten Law Firm, our Tennessee criminal defense lawyers have the professional skills and legal expertise that you can trust for results. If you have any specific questions or concerns about affirmative defenses, we are more than ready to help. Give us a call at 865-805-5703 or use our online contact form to set up a completely confidential case evaluation. From our Knoxville office, we provide criminal defense services throughout the surrounding areas, including in Knox County, Roane County, Anderson County, Sevier County, and Blount County.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal 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.