Is It a Crime to...? Where Tennessee Law and TV DivergeOne of the less fortunate effects of police procedurals on television is that people often misconstrue what is legal and what is not. They may not understand exactly when a person’s Miranda rights must be read, or how honest police must be. They may also believe that certain actions are less serious than they are, or that other actions are legal when they are not.

Admittedly, Tennessee has a few strange laws on the books. For example, it is illegal here to share your Netflix password, despite Netflix itself having no problem with such a thing. It is also illegal to hunt from a moving motor vehicle (wheelchairs excluded), which is how the popular rumor that it is illegal to shoot a whale from your car was started. (Though technically, it IS illegal to shoot a whale from a moving car in Tennessee – not only because of the law, but because it implies you are hunting a whale in an aquarium.)

Today, our Pigeon Forge criminal defense attorneys look at some common TV scenarios that are far less common in “real” life and debunk the myths.

Is it a crime to fail to report a dead body?

Yes, it is. Unlike in television, where people find bodies and then simply ignore them in order to go their own way, any person who finds a body must call law enforcement.

Under Title 38 of the Tennessee Code, it is a Class A misdemeanor to fail to report the discovery of a dead body or of body parts immediately. According to the code, the person who made the discovery must report it “by the fastest available means of communication, to the chief of police if the body, or any part of the body, is discovered in an incorporated town or city, or to the sheriff if the body, or any part of the body, is discovered in the county outside the corporate limits of any incorporated town or city.”

Is it a crime to steal human remains?

Yes, it is. No matter how many times you see someone steal into a graveyard in films, you cannot simply take human remains. “All human remains in the state of Tennessee are protected under state law. It is illegal to knowingly tamper with, excavate, or disinter human burials, gravesites, or funerary objects of any age or cultural affiliation, without a Chancery court order.”

T.C.A. 39-17-311 (Desecration of a Venerated Object) and T.C.A. 39-17-312 (Abuse of Corpse) handle the laws regarding desecration of human remains. If you desecrate a burial place you can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. If you disinter a corpse without permission, you can be charged with a Class E Felony.

Is it a crime to flatten a penny on the railroad tracks?

It is, but not for the reason you think. It has nothing to do with the railroad, and everything to do with the penny. This action falls under 18 USC 333, which outlines a crime for anyone who “mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued.”

In other words, if you have ever used one of these machines, you are technically complicit in a crime.

This also goes for burning, ripping, writing on, or otherwise defacing paper money to the point of rendering it unable to be used. On the other side of things, “Manufacturing counterfeit United States currency or altering genuine currency to increase its value is a violation of Title 18, Section 471 of the United States Code and is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, or 15 years imprisonment, or both.”

Is it a crime to harbor or hide a runaway?

Yes, it is a crime – according to the Tennessee code § 39-15-414 – for someone to knowingly harbor or hide a known runaway. This includes failing to notify the runaway’s legal guardian or law enforcement. The crime occurs when notification is not made within 24 hours. A person can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for these actions, including helping the minor escape their parents, legal guardian, legal custodian, or law enforcement.

Is it a crime to remove a vehicle from private property?

It absolutely is. Under the Tennessee Code 55-5-122, it is illegal to remove a vehicle from private property “unless the person so moving the motor vehicle has acquired an interest in the vehicle by operation of law, a security interest agreement, or is acting pursuant to an order of a court of competent jurisdiction, including a municipal court.”

You can be charged with misdemeanor joyriding (where you take a car but intend to return it), felony carjacking (where you take a car by force), or auto theft, which can range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B felony, depending.

Is it a crime to go through someone’s trash or take items from someone’s trash?

Onscreen private detectives (as well as the less savory characters) are forever going through people’s trash for clues to some great mystery – or to find some type of leverage against the person. Following a United States Supreme Court ruling in 1988 in California vs. Greenwood, it is not illegal to go through or take items from someone’s trash. The court ruled that once the trash is left at the curb it is considered part of the public domain. However, if you are entering private property or going past gates to access the trash, you could be violating local trespassing laws.

Is it a crime to drive with your interior lights on inside the vehicle?

This one does not pop up in films or TV, but it is likely your parents scolded you as a child for turning on an interior light while they were driving. They might have even said that it will cause them to get pulled over by a police officer and receive a ticket. Despite these threats from your parents, it is not illegal to drive with your interior lights on inside the vehicle. The only thing having an interior light on while driving does is make it more difficult for the driver to see the surroundings outside of the vehicle. The interior lights can also be distracting to the driver, which can increase the risk of a crash.

At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, we investigate the charges and help build a defense so you can get back to living a normal, free life. Our in-depth knowledge of the laws – even obscure ones – makes us a formidable force on behalf of people charged with crimes in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Seymour, and the Tri-Cities area. Call our office in Sevierville at 865-428-8780, or complete our contact form to schedule a consultation today.