“Self-defense is the clearest of all laws, and for this reason: lawyers didn't make it.”
~ Douglas William Jerrold, English writer and playwright (1803-1857)
On April 11, a special prosecutor charged 28-year-old George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, with second degree murder for the February 26 and killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The 7-week-delay in charging Zimmerman with murder was primarily due to the initial determination by local law enforcement that Zimmerman’s actions fell under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law – which allows people to use deadly force anywhere they feel a reasonable threat of death or serious injury. The special prosecutor determined that the facts of the case caused Florida’s Stand Your Ground law not to apply.
Tennessee also has a “Stand Your Ground” law. The Tennessee Legislature passed a version of such law in 2007. Part 1 of this column discussed the creation and passage of the law. Part 2 takes a look at the language and operation of the law.
Q. What exactly does Tennessee’s Stand Your Ground law say and mean?
First, the words “stand your ground” do not actually appear in the law, which is simply titled “Self-defense” as it appears at Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-611.
Until the passage of Tennessee’s “Stand Your Ground” law in 2007, state law historically required that persons who were legally at home must not use deadly force on an illegal intruder if he or she could safely retreat.
As of 2007, Tennessee’s “Self-defense” law now expressly states as follows:
- A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity, and
- Who is in a place where the person has a right to be,
- Legally 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.”
Q. Does the law have a special provision in the case of forced entry into a residence, business, dwelling or vehicle?
Yes. Tennessee’s “Stand Your Ground” law also says:
- An occupant of a residence, business, dwelling, or vehicle is legally protected
- And is allowed to use force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury
- Against another person who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence, business, dwelling or vehicle
- When the person using defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.
The law states that the person who is using defensive force in such a situation “is presumed to have held a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury.”
The law also expands the physical areas where the law applies:
- The term “business” includes the interior and exterior of the business.
- The term “dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind that is designed for an capable of use by people, such as an “RV” (recreational vehicle used for camping or travel lodging), and any attached porch to a building or conveyance.
- The term “residence” also includes any dwelling, building or other structure within the yard, or “curtilage” of the residence. ("Curtilage" means “the area surrounding a dwelling that is necessary, convenient and habitually used for family purposes and for those activities associated with the sanctity of a person's home.”)
IMPORTANT NOTE: The law does NOT allow defensive force to be used in several key situations:
- Against a person who has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, business, residence, or vehicle; or
- Against a person who is attempting to remove his or her child or grandchild, or who is attempting to remove a child for whom he or she has lawful custody or guardianship; or
- Against a law enforcement officer who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, business, residence, or vehicle in the performance of the officer's official duties.
James B. (Jim) Hawkins is a general practice and public interest law attorney based in Gallatin. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention. Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your case. Topics for future columns may be suggested at (615) 452-9200.