In Tennessee, victims of domestic abuse can go to civil court and petition (ask) for an order of protection. An order of protection directs the alleged abuser not to harm or have any contact with the victim. Even though it's a civil order, violating the order can result in criminal penalties.
Domestic abuse occurs when a family or household member inflicts physical harm or injury to a victim or attempts or threatens such harm. Examples of domestic abuse include hitting, kicking, choking, physical restraint, or malicious damage to a victim's personal property. Family or household members include individuals who share one of the following relationships:
Stalking and sexual assault victims don't need to prove a family or household relationship to obtain an order of protection.
A victim (called the petitioner) fills out forms—provided by the court—asking for an order prohibiting a family or household member (the respondent) from contacting or harming the victim. (If the victim is a vulnerable adult, a relative may petition on their behalf.) To obtain an order, the petitioner must identify specific acts of domestic abuse and the required relationship. The petition must be served on (delivered to) the respondent, who can then file a response, attend the hearing set on the matter, or do neither or both.
A petition can be filed in the county where the respondent lives or the domestic abuse allegedly occurred. If the respondent is not a Tennessee resident, the petitioner may file in their county of residence.
Tennessee law does not require petitioners to pay court costs or filing fees. If it's determined that the respondent committed domestic abuse, the judge can require the respondent to pay court costs and filing fees, as well as the petitioner's attorney's fees.
Victims who believe they're in immediate danger can request a temporary ex parte (ex PAR-tee) order of protection. (Ex parte means the court is only hearing the victim's side of the story at this point.) Based on the petition, the judge can order temporary relief to protect the victim prior to holding a full hearing, where the respondent will have an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
Once the respondent receives and knows of the ex parte order, a violation can mean criminal charges. Typically a law enforcement officer or process server will deliver the papers to the respondent, after which a full hearing must be held within 15 days.
The court will hold a hearing on the petition unless the petitioner requests to dismiss the case. Although the respondent isn't required to respond, a respondent's failure to appear likely will result in the judge granting the order. At the hearing, the petitioner must prove the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of "more likely than not"). The respondent also will have a chance to give evidence and testimony as to why the judge should deny the petition.
The type of order—ex parte or final—will determine the terms or conditions available and the duration of the order.
In an ex parte order, the judge can make orders to prevent or protect the victim from future acts of harm. Oftentimes, temporary orders prohibit the respondent from harming or contacting the applicant and list the places the respondent must avoid. The order might also give the petitioner sole possession of a shared residence. The order remains in effect until the court dismisses the case or holds a full hearing, which typically takes place within 15 days. While this order is temporary, respondents should not take it lightly. A violation can result in arrest and jail time.
The final order of protection generally remains in effect for up to one year but can be extended. The terms available for a final order can include:
The court must order the respondent to surrender any and all firearms. Federal law also prohibits the respondent in a domestic abuse order of protection case from possessing a firearm if the order meets certain requirements.
Penalties for a violation can result in arrest, jail time, and a criminal record.
Protection order violations can result in both civil and criminal penalties.
Misdemeanor. Violating a domestic abuse order of protection, such as by harming or contacting the victim, constitutes a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a fine of $100 to $2,500.
Contempt. The court may hold an offender in civil contempt for violating the protective order, which can mean jail time and fines. After the respondent's first violation, the court may extend the protection order for up to five years. Second and subsequent violations can lead to extensions of up to ten years.
Other crimes. A violation that involves further violence, such as domestic assault, stalking, or sexual assault, can result in additional criminal charges.
Tennessee laws provide additional protections for victims in the enforcement of protection orders.
Arrest. Law enforcement officers may arrest an offender, without a warrant, if they have reasonable cause to believe the offender violated an order of protection.
Bond. A person who violates a protection order can have a bond of at least $2,500 hanging over their head for the duration of the order. The bond is forfeited upon a subsequent violation.
Jail hold. Upon making an arrest for a protection order violation, an officer must hold the offender for at least 12 hours. An earlier release is allowed only if a court official determines that the offender does not pose a threat to the alleged victim. In such a case, though, the official will make all reasonable efforts to directly contact the victim and inform them of the offender's early release.
(Tenn. Code §§ 36-3-601 to -606, -608 to -612, -617, -620, -625; 39-13-113; 40-11-150; 40-35-111; 18 U.S.C. § 922 (2021).)
If you received notice of a domestic abuse protective order issued against you, contact an attorney who works in family law or criminal defense. For criminal charges stemming from a violation, speak to a local criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney can review the unique circumstances of your case and discuss possible options.
If you're a victim seeking assistance in filing for a domestic abuse protective order, contact a lawyer who specializes in family law or a victim's advocate. You can also check out Nolo's Resources for Victims of Crime.
The Tennessee courts provide free forms and instructions online for domestic abuse orders of protection.