Tennesse's Domestic Abuse Act stresses the seriousness of domestic violence and provides enhanced legal protections to victims of domestic violence. Crimes involving physical injury, physical restraint, or fear of harm committed against a family or household member are considered domestic abuse crimes. Domestic abuse crimes may include domestic or aggravated assault, stalking, harassment, protection order violations, and sexual assault, to name a few.
This article will discuss Tennessee's criminal penalties for domestic abuse crimes. More information on civil orders of protection can be found in our article Tennessee Domestic Abuse Orders of Protection.
One of the most commonly charged domestic abuse crimes is domestic assault. Even though other crimes—like aggravated assault and stalking—are not labeled as "domestic crimes," they carry additional penalties and restrictions if committed against a family or household member.
Assault consists of any of the following conduct:
Family and household members. The law categorizes the assault as domestic if the offender and victim share one of the following relationships:
When assault results in serious bodily injury or involves a deadly weapon or attempted strangulation (definitions below), the prosecutor can file charges for aggravated assault. A defendant who assaults another person in violation of a restraining order can also face aggravated assault charges.
Serious bodily injury. Serious bodily injury involves significant harm such as a broken bone, disfigurement, loss of a limb, or an injury requiring surgery or hospitalization.
Deadly weapon. An object that's capable of causing death or serious bodily injury constitutes a deadly weapon. Examples include a firearm, a large hunting knife, and brass knuckles. Tennessee courts have ruled that body parts, like fists and feet, do not qualify as deadly weapons.
Strangulation. Strangulation occurs when an offender intentionally obstructs another's normal breathing or blood circulation by applying pressure to their throat or neck or by blocking their nose and mouth.
(Tenn. Code §§ 36-3-601; 39-13-101, -102; 39-13-111 (2020).)
Domestic assault qualifies as a Class A or B misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances of the conduct involved. An offender guilty of a Class A misdemeanor—by causing or threatening bodily injury—faces penalties of up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $15,000 fine. A Class B misdemeanor conviction—by doing an act that is provocative or offensive—subjects the defendant to up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. The judge can impose an additional fine of $100 to $200.
A person convicted of aggravated assault faces a Class C or D felony, again, depending on the circumstances—for instance, whether the actor committed the assault intentionally or recklessly. A person guilty of a Class C felony (intentional act) faces three to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A Class D felony (reckless behavior) carries two to 12 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. For domestic-related offenses, the judge can impose an additional fine of up to $200.
Defendants who commit repeated acts of domestic assault face harsher penalties, including mandatory sentences and fines.
The judge can also order a defendant to pay restitution to the domestic abuse victim for any expenses resulting from the crime, such as hospital bills, counseling, and repair or replacement costs of damaged property.
(Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-101, -111; 40-35-111 (2020).)
Domestic abuse crimes involve more than assault offenses. Related offenses include stalking, harassment, and violating an order of protection, among other crimes.
A person commits harassment by communicating with another in a harmful, threatening, or offensive manner. The law classifies harassment as either a Class A misdemeanor or a Class E felony.
Stalking involves an offender repeatedly and continually harassing a person in a manner that causes the victim to reasonably feel terrorized, frightened, intimated, threatened, harassed, or molested. Three punishment levels exist for stalking, ranging from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony.
Violating an order of protection or other restraining order—whether issued in civil or criminal court—constitutes a Class A misdemeanor. These court orders typically prohibit the abuser from contacting or harm the victim and impose other restrictions on the abuser.
(Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-113; 39-17-308, -315; 40-35-111 (2020).)
In addition to imprisonment and monetary costs, Tennessee law establishes the following conditions, restrictions, and penalties for domestic abuse cases.
If a police officer has probable cause to believe an individual committed a domestic abuse-related crime, they can arrest the perpetrator without a warrant, unless a clear and compelling reason exists not to arrest them on the spot. The officer can make the arrest regardless of the crime's severity and even if the officer didn't witness the unlawful conduct. If law enforcement thinks the offender used any weapons in the commission of the crime, those must be seized.
Pretrial release conditions in domestic abuse cases typically include restrictions such as ordering the offender to stay away from and not contact the victim and prohibiting any use of firearms. Judges determine the bail amount and any conditions based on a defendant's flight risk and risk of harm to the victim and others. Depending on the offender's previous criminal record and the severity of the current offense, the judge may require a GPS device in order to monitor the defendant's whereabouts.
A person convicted of domestic assault loses the right to possess firearms. Additionally, those subject to an order of protection must also refrain from possessing or carrying firearms. Refusing to surrender firearms constitutes a Class A misdemeanor. Federal law contains a similar provision regarding firearm restrictions.
(Tenn. Code §§ 36-3-619, -620; 39-13-111; 40-7-103; 40-11-150; 18 U.S.C. §§ 921, 922 (2020).)
If you've been arrested for or charged with a domestic violence-related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney today. A conviction for domestic assault can become part of your permanent criminal record and negatively impact your ability to find employment or housing or own a firearm. An experienced lawyer will discuss the circumstances unique to your situation, formulate possible defenses, and protect your constitutional rights.