In the state of Tennessee, a person commits criminal trespass if they enter or remain on property without the owner’s consent. A property owner can lower the chances of criminal trespass by asking a trespasser to leave the property and/or by reporting the trespasser to local law enforcement, such as the sheriff.
It is advised that a private property owner post "no trespassing" signs at all major points of ingress, or entrance, to the property. Alternatively, the property owner can place identifying purple paint marks on trees or posts on the property, along with at least one sign explaining that purple paint marks signify no trespassing.
A property owner is not required to post signs or mark trees or posts on their property with purple paint.
Penalties for Trespass Under Tennessee Law
Tennessee’s statutes regarding criminal trespass, aggravated criminal trespass and trespass by motor vehicle can be found in Tennessee Code Annotated at 39-14-405, 39-14-406 and 39-14-407, respectively.
The penalties for these offenses can be found in Tennessee Code Annotated 40-35-111. Criminal trespass is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days' incarceration and a fine up to $50.
A person commits aggravated criminal trespass in Tennessee when they:
- Know they do not have the property owner’s permission to be on the property.
- Intend, know or are reckless about whether their presence will cause fear for the safety of another.
- Destroy, cut, vandalize, alter or remove a gate, signage, fencing, lock, chain or other barrier designed to keep trespassers from entering the property.
- Recklessly damage the property or personal property on it.
Aggravated Criminal Trespass as a Misdemeanor
Typically, aggravated criminal trespass involves four elements:
- Entering or remaining on property knowing they do not have the owner's consent
- Intending, knowing or being reckless about whether their presence will cause fear for the safety of another
- Gaining entry by destroying, cutting, vandalizing, altering or removing a gate, signage, fencing, lock or other barrier designed to keep trespassers from entering the property and
- Recklessly damaging the property or personal property on it.
The penalty and level of severity for this offense varies according to specific details.
Behavior Constituting offense
Level of Offense
Period of Incarceration
Typical behavior as defined above.
Class B misdemeanor
Up to $500
Behavior as defined above and committed in a building of any hospital on state property or on the campus, property or facilities of any private or public school or in a habitation.
Class A misdemeanor
Up to 11 months and 29 days
Up to $2,500
Behavior as defined above and involving entrance of a construction site or a property used or owned by a public or private utility or electric or telephone cooperative. The offender must have the intent to steal, deface, destroy, tamper with, alter or remove any equipment, supplies or other property found on the site or property.
Class A misdemeanor
Up to 11 months and 29 days
Up to $2,500
A habitation is a structure designed for overnight accommodations, such as a house. A mobile home, tent or trailer is included under the definition of habitation.
Aggravated Criminal Trespass as a Felony
Aggravated criminal trespass is a Class E felony if it is committed on residential property belonging to, or occupied by, a law enforcement officer, active duty member of the military, judge, or elected or appointed federal, state or local official.
The act must be done with the intent to harass the person described above due to that person’s status as a law enforcement officer, active duty member of the military, judge or elected or appointed federal, state or local official.
The penalty for a Class E felony is one to six years' incarceration and a fine up to $3,000.
Trespass by Motor Vehicle in Tennessee
Trespass by motor vehicle is defined in state law as driving, parking, standing or otherwise operating a motor vehicle on, through, or within a parking area, driving area or roadway located on privately owned property.
The privately owned property is typically provided for use by patrons, customers or employees of business establishments upon that property.
In order for the act to be considered a crime, a person must have requested or ordered the offender to leave the property or cease doing any of the actions noted above on the property. Such an offense can be charged as a Class C misdemeanor with no incarceration permitted.
Who Can Request the Offender to Leave
The person who requests or orders the offender to leave or cease their actions can be a:
- Law enforcement officer.
- Property owner.
- Property lessee.
- Person with the right to use or control the property.
- Any authorized agent or representative with the right to use or control the property, such as a private security guard hired to patrol the property.
Posting of Signs for Drivers
A property owner, lessee or other person with the right to use or control the property may post signs or other notices in a parking area, driving area or roadway giving notice of Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-14-407.
The posting of signs or notice is not a requirement to prosecution. A failure to post signs or notices is not a defense to prosecution.
Charges for Criminal Trespass
A prosecutor, also known as an assistant district attorney, is the appropriate person to file a case for criminal trespass. A property owner can be a witness in the state’s case for criminal trespass, aggravated criminal trespass or trespass by motor vehicle.
If the trespasser takes a plea offer or is found guilty at trial, the government can order them to pay restitution to the property owner for the trespass. Restitution is the compensation for injury or loss that the property owner suffered as a result of the trespass.
Filing a Civil Trespassing Case
The property owner can also file a civil case against the trespasser. The reason a property owner may want to do this is because the court might have jurisdiction over the offender’s criminal case for just a short time.
For example, if the court sentenced the offender to 30 days in jail with no formal probation, the offender might fail to pay restitution after serving their sentence. The property owner can then file the civil case against the offender to force them to pay damages.
Defenses to Prosecution for Trespass
It is a defense to criminal prosecution for trespass if the person:
- Entered or remained on property that they reasonably believed the owner had granted them consent to enter.
- Acted in such a way that their conduct did not substantially interfere with the owner’s use of the property.
- Immediately left the property upon request.
The defenses to prosecution are not applicable if the property owner posts the property with signs visible at all major points of ingress, and the signs are reasonably likely to come to the attention of a person entering the property.
Using Purple Paint Marks
The defenses to prosecution are also not available if the property owner places identifying purple paint marks on trees or posts on the property. At least one sign must be posted at a major point of ingress to the property in a manner that is reasonably likely to come to the attention of a person entering the property.
The sign must include language explaining that the use of purple paint signifies “no trespassing.”
If using purple paint to enforce trespassing in Tennessee, the sign must include:
- Vertical lines of not less than 8 inches in length and not less than 1 inch in width.
- Placed so the bottom of the mark is not less than 3 feet or more than 5 feet from the ground.
- Placed at locations that are reasonably likely to come to the attention of a person entering the property.
- If possible, record the trespassers with a video camera so that you will have solid evidence of the crime if the police do not arrive before the trespassers leave.
- Do not confront the trespassers if you feel that it may present a danger to you; call the police and wait for them to arrive.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.