Like other states, Tennessee distinguishes misdemeanors from felonies based on the amount of time a person could potentially spend behind bars. If a sentence allows incarceration for one year or more, the crime is a felony. Sentences of less than a year fall under the category of misdemeanors.
Tennessee divides its misdemeanor offenses into three classes: Class A, B, and C misdemeanors. This article will discuss penalty, sentencing, and expungement options for Tennessee misdemeanors.
Tennessee classifies misdemeanor penalties as follows.
Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of 11 months and 29 days' jail time and a $2,500 fine. Examples of class A misdemeanors include stalking, joyriding, violating a restraining order, and incitement to riot.
Class B misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of six months' jail time and a $500 fine. Examples of class B misdemeanors include aggravated criminal trespass, prostitution, indecent exposure, and assault involving offensive contact.
Class C misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of 30 days' jail time and a $50 fine. Examples of class C misdemeanors include public intoxication, using false identification, disorderly conduct, and carrying a firearm with intent to go armed.
In certain cases, the law provided enhanced felony penalties for repeat misdemeanors. For example, a second stalking offense increases from a misdemeanor to a class E felony. If the offense involved the same victim, a defendant faces class C felony charges. Several misdemeanor offenses also carry felony penalties when the level of harm to a person or property increases, such as assault, theft, and vandalism.
When imposing misdemeanor sentences, judges have several options at their disposal, including jail time, probation, sentencing alternatives, and diversion.
A judge may sentence a defendant to any jail term that's within the limit for that misdemeanor class. When imposing the sentence, the judge must also set the minimum percentage (between 0 and 75%) that a defendant must serve before becoming eligible for release or program options. These options include work release, furloughs, rehabilitative programs, and trusty status (inmate worker program with privileges). The correctional authority (jail warden) determines whether to place the defendant in one of these programs.
In some cases, a judge will impose a jail sentence but suspend part of the sentence and allow a defendant to serve that time in the community on probation. A judge can order the defendant to start probation immediately or after serving a portion of the sentence (called split confinement). A judge may also order periodic confinement, which allows a defendant to serve their sentence on weekends or nonconsecutive days of the week (usually to allow them to go to work or school).
Probation can last longer than the allowable sentence term. For most misdemeanors, the judge can place the offender on probation for up to two years. But for domestic assault and related offenses, the probation terms can be as long as eight years.
To remain in the community, the defendant must abide by the probation conditions, which often include obeying the law, maintaining employment, paying restitution, undergoing treatment, and reporting to a probation officer. Violating any of these terms can result in revocation of the suspended sentence and being sent or returned to jail.
A judge can also impose the following conditions in addition to, or in lieu of, incarceration or probation: payment of fines, fees, or restitution, community service hours, or participation in treatment programs.
Certain offenders may qualify to participate in a recovery court, such as a substance abuse court, mental health court, or a hybrid (such as veterans court). These courts involve intensive supervision by a team that includes the judge, prosecutor, public defenders, case manager, and treatment provider. Eligibility and program availability vary by jurisdiction.
For defendants with no prior felony or class A misdemeanor convictions, a judge may place the offender on probation without entering the adjudication of guilt—called judicial diversion or deferred adjudication. (Defendants facing charges for DUI or a sex offense are not eligible.)
Judicial diversion requires a defendant to abide by the probation conditions, which can include supervision, treatment, alcohol monitoring, or short jail stays. Upon successfully completing diversion, the court dismisses the proceedings and the defendant can request to have all the records expunged (More on expungement below). A defendant can only have one discharge and dismissal under this section. A violation means the judge can enter the conviction and proceed with sentencing.
The law also allows prosecutors to offer pretrial diversion, which presents a chance for certain defendants to avoid a criminal court and conviction. Those facing charges for DUI, sex offenses, crimes against a child, domestic assault, or public official misconduct are ineligible. A defendant's criminal record must also be free of any felony or class A or B misdemeanor convictions.
Pretrial diversion shares similarities with judicial diversion. The key difference occurs in timing and authority. In pretrial diversion, the prosecutor (rather than the judge) holds off on pursuing the charges so the defendant might avoid court altogether. A defendant must follow conditions similar to those in judicial diversion. If successful, the prosecutor will dismiss the charges.
Tennessee allows expunction of eligible misdemeanors by filing a petition with the court. The law excludes from eligibility a list of 40-plus misdemeanors, including misdemeanor assaults, sex offenses, crimes against children, firearm offenses, and DUIs.
For those with eligible convictions, defendants can seek expunction after completing their sentence term and remaining crime free, thereafter, for five years. The process requires the defendant to petition the court and pay a fee. If granted, the expunged conviction and related records are deemed never to have occurred. Only a confidential file remains with the court for purposes of future sentencing.
Prosecutors face time limits—called statutes of limitations—for filing criminal charges. Tennessee requires prosecutors to file most misdemeanor charges within one year of the offense. Learn more about how criminal statutes of limitations work in this article.
While a misdemeanor carries less serious penalties than a felony, a misdemeanor conviction can still have serious, negative consequences. For instance, any time in jail could potentially lead to the loss of your job or housing (even if you're not convicted). Having a misdemeanor conviction can also make it difficult to find a job, obtain housing, apply for loans, or qualify for a professional license.
If you're facing any criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights throughout the proceedings and help you obtain a favorable outcome. Local attorneys know the system, prosecutors, and judges well, which can be helpful in your defense.
(Tenn. Code §§ 39-11-110; 40-2-102; 40-15-105; 40-35-104, -111, -302, -303, -313 (2021).)