Many people encounter times when they need to defend themselves in physical altercations. While it may sound simple to claim self-defense when you are physically attacked or threatened by another person, it can actually become very difficult to prove that you legally acted in self-defense and did not take things too far.
It is important for you to know and understand whether your altercation may be counted as assault or self-defense. The Sevierville criminal defense lawyers from Delius & McKenzie, PLLC tackle this topic in today’s blog.
What is self-defense under Tennessee law?
According to Tennessee Code 39-11-611, a person can use force in an act of self-defense if they have “a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury; the danger creating the belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury is real, or honestly believed to be real at the time; and the belief of danger is founded upon reasonable grounds.” In other words, you are legally allowed to defend yourself physically if:
- You believe there is an actual threat.
- Any other person would have felt threatened, harmed, and in danger just like you did.
- You aren’t participating in anything illegal.
- You were not trespassing and have permission to be at the location in which the physical altercation occurred.
You must have evidence that shows that you were using self-defense to protect yourself. You cannot claim self-defense if you assault someone only because of a rumor they spread about you online or throughout your group of friends. There must be actual proof that you were in immediate and direct danger causing you to react and protect yourself.
How does Tennessee define assault?
Under the law, a person can be charged with assault if he or she:
- Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another;
- Intentionally or knowingly causes another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury; or
- Intentionally or knowingly causes physical contact with another and a reasonable person would regard the contact as extremely offensive or provocative.
The role of intent
Generally speaking, people who are acting in self-defense did not intend to cause bodily harm; they simply want to avoid being harmed, or limit the amount of harm, to themselves, their family members, or other applicable parties. For example, say John Doe gets into an altercation with Joe Smith. If Doe takes a swing at Smith and Smith pushes Doe away from him, it is likely that Doe would be charged with assault, whereas Smith may be able to claim self-defense.
How “reasonable” applies
The legal parameters of self-defense and assault both contain the word “reasonable,” and cases can be hinge on this word. In our example above, we would argue that Smith has a reasonable fear of harm (Doe has attempted to punch him) and a reasonable response in defense (Smith attempts to push Doe away, not to actively cause harm).
However, this is not always the case. If Doe attempts to throw a punch at Smith, and Smith then proceeds to violently attack Doe – think repeated punching, kicking, or beating with an object – a judge may find Smith’s actions unreasonable, even if they were provoked. The same may be true if Doe pushes Smith and Smith shoots or stabs Doe in response. Again, these reactions are likely to be found unreasonable by a court.
Are there any situations where you cannot claim or use self-defense?
There are some situations where individuals must know and be aware of the fact that they cannot claim or use self-defense. Here are a few of these situations:
- You cannot claim or use self-defense for fighting against law enforcement officers when they are attempting to place handcuffs on you or arrest you.
- You cannot claim or use self-defense when you are trespassing or do not have legal permission to be on someone’s property.
- You cannot claim or use self-defense if you started the fight or randomly physically attacked another person.
Deadly force, “duty to retreat/stand your ground” and the “castle doctrine”
In Tennessee, there is no “duty to retreat” when it comes to protecting yourself. Under the law:
- a person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and is in a place where the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat before threatening or using force against another person when and to the degree the person reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.
- a person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and is in a place where the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat before threatening or using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, if:
- The person has a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury;
- The danger creating the belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury is real, or honestly believed to be real at the time; and
- The belief of danger is founded upon reasonable grounds.
In other words, you can “stand your ground” to protect yourself or others.
Therefore, if you used deadly force as self-defense, you must successfully prove that you were physically attacked or threatened, you did not provoke or threaten the individual first, and you feared for your life. Next, you will need to show proof that the self-defense and deadly force you used was equal to the threat or danger you experienced. For example, if someone was yelling, waving their hands, and using profanity language at you because you continue to let your dog roam around their yard and chase after their cats, you cannot pull out a gun and shoot the person. If you claim self-defense for this, there is a high likelihood that it will not stand up in court. The reason for this is because the threat or level of danger made against you in this situation does not equal the amount of force you used.
If such an attack happens on your own property, including your home, business, vehicle, or other property, you are legally allowed to use force – even deadly force – if you “held a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury to self, family, a member of the household or a person visiting as an invited guest.” Also known as the “castle doctrine,” this part of the law states that you can use almost any means necessary to defend yourself, your loved ones, and your property when you are on your own property, though exceptions apply.
The Sevierville criminal defense lawyers at Delius & McKenzie know the ins and outs of proving self-defense claims. Therefore, if you have been accused of assault or any other type of crime, our attorneys are available to represent you. We will listen to your experience, look over the facts of your claim, build a strong case, and prepare to present and show proof to the court that you had absolutely no other options but to act in the way you did to defend yourself. Call or contact our team to schedule a confidential case evaluation at no cost today. We proudly serve Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge.
Attorney Bryan E. Delius was born and raised in Sevier County, TN. He founded Delius & McKenzie more than 20 years ago, after receiving his JD from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is admitted in Tennessee and in several federal court systems. Learn more about Bryan E. Delius.