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The Basics of Tennessee Criminal Law

The Tennessee legislature is in charge of creating Tennessee criminal law. This body of law defines what constitutes a felony and what constitutes a misdemeanor, it separates various crimes into subcategories, and it provides sentencing guidelines for those convicted.

If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of Tennessee criminal law and procedure. It will also be to your benefit to contact a Tennessee criminal lawyer who has experience handling cases that are similar to yours.

Crime Categories under Tennessee Criminal Law

One of the most basic elements of Tennessee criminal law is the definitions of crimes. There are two main categories of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors.

Felonies are considered more serious crimes against the state. This category includes things like murder, rape, and kidnapping. Felonies are usually punishable by at least a year in prison, hefty fines, or a combination of both.

Meanwhile, misdemeanors are lesser crimes. They include such things as trespassing, vandalism, and simple assault. Misdemeanors are usually punishable by no more than a year in jail, smaller fines, or a combination of both. Alternative sentencing, such as anger-management classes or community service, is also a possibility.

There are subcategories of felonies and misdemeanors in Tennessee. These subcategories are known as classes. A class B misdemeanor, for example is considered worse than a class D misdemeanor, but a class B felony is worse than a class B misdemeanor.

For example, domestic assault in Tennessee is considered simple assault in most situations, meaning it is a misdemeanor. But intentionally causing someone serious injury, which is known as aggravated assault, is considered a class C felony.

The Tennessee Criminal Process

Under Tennessee criminal law, the criminal process can be broken down into two major phases: pre-trial and trial.

The pre-trial stages of the criminal process include the search, the arrest, and the arraignment.

A search is when police officers and investigators get warrants to search your property to try to develop probable cause. Probable cause is the belief you are most likely guilty of committing a crime. Police officers must have probable cause to make an arrest.

Once probable cause is established, you will be placed under arrest. You may at this time exercise your constitutional rights, which include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. This kind of attorney is known as a public defender.

Within about three days after your arrest, you will be arraigned. This means that you will be summoned to court to enter your plea. You may enter one of several pleas in Tennessee:

  • Guilty: This means you admit you committed the crime.
  • Not guilty: This means you claim you did not commit the crime.
  • No contest: This means you do not admit guilt but you also do not dispute the charges. This plea is often entered if you anticipate a related civil lawsuit.

Before the trial takes place, you and your attorney may choose to negotiate what is known as a plea bargain with the prosecution (the party trying to convict you). A plea bargain is an agreement where you admit guilt to lesser charges in exchange for a lighter sentence. This enables you to bypass trial.

If a plea bargain is not made, the trial will begin. You do have a right to a jury trial though you may waive this right for a bench trial, which is a trial with just a judge.

If you have further questions about a specific crime or another aspect of Tennessee criminal law, you should set up a consultation with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney in your area.