When can a person use deadly force against another in self-defense? What’s the law regarding the use of deadly force in defense of self and others in Tennessee? Is Tennessee one of the ”stand your ground” states we hear and read about so often in the news media? There are many misconceptions among the law abiding public when it comes to when and under what circumstances deadly force can and cannot be used in self-defense. With the rise in the issuance of handgun carry permits it becomes even more vital to have a good understanding of the law regarding the use of deadly force in given circumstances. In situations where deadly force is believed to be necessary, a victim will not be in a position to get legal advise before they act. The decision to use deadly force is one that must be made in an instant and that decision, under any circumstance will be life changing, regardless of the outcome.
Generally, the right to use deadly force comes about when a person has a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury to self, and in some cases to others. In the context of the home, business or vehicle, that right extends in protection of family, a member of the household and even a person visiting as an invited guest. In Tennessee, it is even presumed that a person has the belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury if an intruder unlawfully and forcibly enters a residence, business, dwelling or vehicle. In other words, it is assumed you had the belief that you were in danger of imminent death or serious bodily injury in that circumstance. Is Tennessee a “stand your ground” state when it comes to the use of deadly force in self-defense? Generally, yes, if that phrase simply means that a deadly force victim is not required to retreat. In Tennessee, there is no duty to retreat or even to attempt to do so before deadly force is used in self-defense. Whether a victim is on the street or inside their home, business or vehicle the rule remains, however: before deadly force can be used the victim must have a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury. If a person is no longer in danger of death or great bodily injury because the intruder or attacker has broken off the attack, ceased hostility, or retreated you may not use deadly force in retaliation. Another important rule to remember is that deadly force can never be used in the defense of property alone.*
Can a homeowner lawfully shoot an intruder running out of his home with the homeowner’s valuables, while offering no other threat? Can a single mom lawfully shoot through a window at a masked intruder who is in the process of breaking into her home at 2:00 a.m., even though she sees no weapon and the intruder is not yet inside? In the first example, the answer is clearly no. There can be no reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury in someone simply running away with property, while offering no other threat. This is true regardless of the value of the property. In the second example the answer is probably yes. The key is whether the single mom had a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury to herself or others in her household at that instant. The fact that the single mom saw no weapon or that the intruder had not yet gotten inside would have little bearing as to the issue of whether she had a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury under those particular circumstances. Did the single mom have a duty to call 911 before using deadly force? Did the single mom have the duty to first try to escape to the safety of a neighbor’s house before using deadly force? The answer is no in each example. In Tennessee, there would be no duty to attempt to contact authorities or to retreat before using deadly force.
Remember, having a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury is the key to whether one can resort to the use of deadly force. The threat must be real and it must be imminent. When an attacker is inside your home, business, or vehicle when you use deadly force, you are presumed to have that reasonable belief. It is assumed, at least initially, that you acted properly. When you use deadly force elsewhere, for example on the street, you may not be entitled to that presumption. However, you may still have the right to use deadly force but in the case of a street encounter you’ll need to show you had a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury before you acted.
Tennessee Code Annotated 39-11-611 is Tennessee’s statutory law governing self-defense. Anyone, interested in learning more about self-defense in Tennessee and especially the use of deadly force in defense of self and others are encouraged to read and know this statute. Any questions concerning this law, or any other self-defense questions or concerns should be directed to an attorney.
* In Tennessee, deadly force can be used under certain circumstances when there is a sabotage threat to a nuclear facility.