Tennessee Supreme Court issues new opinion on issue of self-defense in Tennessee

The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued a new opinion on the issue of when and under what circumstances the statutory “right” of self-defense is available.   The opinion is State of Tennessee v. Antoine Perrier ,  W2015-01642-SC-R11-CD and was released on November 21, 2017.

As summarized by the Court, these are the issues:

We granted the defendant’s application for permission to appeal in this case with direction to the parties to particularly address the following issues: (1) the meaning of the phrase “not engaged in unlawful activity” in the self-defense statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-611, and (2) whether the trial court or the jury decides whether the defendant was engaged in unlawful activity. We hold that the legislature intended the phrase “not engaged in unlawful activity” in the self-defense statute to be a condition of the statutory privilege not to retreat when confronted with unlawful force and that the trial court should make the threshold determination of whether the defendant was engaged in unlawful activity when he used force in an alleged self-defense situation. We further conclude that the defendant’s conduct in this case constituted unlawful activity for the purposes of this statute. * * * *  We affirm the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, albeit on separate grounds.

The key holding of this case may be that the Court concluded that a person who is not engaged in “unlawful activity” has no duty to retreat (assuming all other factors are satisfied) before resorting to deadly force in self-defense but that a person engaged in “unlawful activity” is in a different circumstance and that such person has an affirmative duty to retreat before resorting to deadly force in self-defense,

This differential duty arose from changes to Tennessee’s self-defense statute by the Legislature which should be re-evaluated and reconsidered.

In this case, the Court did not expand upon what activities fall within the scope of the Legislature’s poorly chosen phrase “engaged in unlawful activity”.  In the case, the defendant was referenced as being a felon in possession of a firearm and the court spent almost no time on the issue of whether that satisfied the term “engaged in unlawful activity”.   What the court held was simply if a defendant is engaged in “unlawful activity” that the duty to retreat is imposed and required but its not required otherwise.

So what is “unlawful activity” under the statute?  Would it include for example in a carjacking case not having current tags, an insurance card or even a valid driver’s license?  If you are at home, would “unlawful activity” include perhaps code violations that are “unlawful” such as perhaps having your grass be too tall in Nashville or parking on the grass rather than in a driveway?  The Court acknowledged but found it unnecessary to determine in this case whether there has to be a relationship between the unlawful activity and the self-defense claim:

The defendant maintains that any unlawful activity by a defendant asserting self-defense must have a causal nexus to his perceived need to defend himself. The State responds that the statutory language does not admit a reading that includes a causal nexus. It is unnecessary to resolve this issue to decide the case before us.
So, we are left to wonder whether matters such as being continuously in violation of a child support order (an “unlawful activity”) might deny someone the “no retreat” presumption when such status generally would have absolutely no relationship to a self-defense claim.

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