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Imagine sitting at home enjoying dinner on a cool, summer evening when you begin to hear a distant commotion. Sitting outside, you notice that the commotion is getting louder as an angry mob of hundreds of protesters make their way onto your private property. This was the frightening reality for a couple in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 28, 2020. This incident gained national coverage and news outlets often showed the couple exiting their home brandishing firearms, sometimes pointing them directly at the crowd with their fingers on the trigger. The way that the couple addressed the mob has sparked great debate and controversy throughout our country; and in turn, has created an excellent case study for the examination of use of force laws in Tennessee. Here’s what Tennessee Independent Program Attorneys have to say…

What is Force and Deadly Force?

First, we must define what force and deadly force means in the State of Tennessee. The use of force is defined as compulsion by the use of physical power or violence to accomplish a purpose.

Deadly force means the use of force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. Whether the general use of force or the use of deadly force is employed, exercising force must be reasonable and proportionate to the situation at hand. If one is found to have unlawfully threatened or used deadly force in an unreasonable or unjustified manner, criminal charges can range from assault, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, or even some degree of homicide. Often, the use of deadly force is not justified or reasonable.

When Is the Use of Deadly Force Justified In the State of Tennessee?

In the State of Tennessee, a person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and is rightfully in a given location has no duty to retreat before threatening or using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, if:

  1. The person has a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury;
  2. The danger creating the belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury is real, or honestly believed to be real at the time; and
  3. The belief of danger is founded upon reasonable grounds.

This use of self-defense and defense of others can also be used at a person’s residence, business, or vehicle.  When used at these locations, Tennessee law recognizes what is commonly known as the “Castle Doctrine.”

Additionally, under “Stand Your Ground” laws, an individual can use self-defense and defense of others in a public place as long as they are legally allowed to be at the given location and they are not committing a crime.

When is the Use of Deadly Force NOT Permitted in Tennessee?

The short answer is in any circumstance outside of the two examples just listed. One key example of when the use of deadly force is not permitted is for the protection of property. Tennessee law is very clear on this subject: “Unless a person is justified in using deadly force as otherwise provided by law, a person is not justified in using deadly force to prevent or terminate the other’s trespass on real estate or unlawful interference with personal property.”

This is effectively saying that the use of deadly force for the protection of property alone is not justified unless there is an imminent fear of serious bodily injury or death. If there is an imminent fear of serious bodily injury or death, then a person can use deadly force in self-defense or defense of others.

The presence of a legitimate, reasonable fear of imminent and serious bodily harm or death is the key difference between using deadly force in a justified manner and committing a crime. This key difference is why it is of the utmost importance to always speak to an attorney before giving a statement to the police. In a situation such as this, the words you use to describe your legitimate and reasonable fear will either get you charged and convicted of a crime or absolved of any criminal liability.

So, if you find yourself in a situation on your property like the couple in St. Louis, know that the answer is not always going to be perfectly clear under the law. At the end of the day, the analysis is almost always going to be one of “reasonableness.”

If a reasonable person were to find angry protesters in their yard, the first step would be to call law enforcement. If you choose to display your weapon, it should always be in response to a reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death. Remember: if you display or point your weapon at protesters in a situation that a judge or jury may not see as reasonable and in an imminent fear of serious bodily injury, there is a good chance that you, the homeowner, could be charged with a crime (i.e., Aggravated Assault—a Class C Felony). Likewise, pointing a handgun at mere trespassers on your property could give rise to a felony charge (unless of course, the trespasser is reasonably placing you in fear of imminent, serious bodily injury or death).

What If Threatening Words are Used Against Us By the Protesters?

Again, the answer is one of reasonableness. Nasty or mean words, in the absence of any reasonably perceived imminent threat of serious bodily injury, do not enable you to use or display deadly force.  However, threatening words, accompanied by aggressive actions or movements that would reasonably cause someone to be placed in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, can sometimes make the use of deadly force more likely to pass the “reasonableness” test under the law.

In summation, any display or threat of using a gun must be in response to some reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury or death. If you have any questions, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to your Independent Program Attorney.

The preceding should not be construed as legal advice nor the creation of an attorney-client relationship. This is not an endorsement or solicitation for any service. Your situation may be different, so please contact your attorney regarding your specific circumstances. Because the laws, judges, juries, and prosecutors vary from location to location, similar or even identical facts and circumstances to those described in this presentation may result in significantly different legal outcomes. This presentation is by no means a guarantee or promise of any particular legal outcome, positive, negative, or otherwise.