In Tennessee, an arrest warrant and the underlying criminal case can be dismissed if the statute of limitations for the criminal charge has passed. The statute of limitations is the time period during which a charge can be prosecuted. An arrest warrant does not expire, but the court can dismiss it.
Generally, the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor is one year after the offense has been committed. The statute of limitations for a felony varies from anytime during the person’s life for an offense punishable by death or incarceration for life, to two years for a Class E felony.
Tennessee Rules Regarding Limitations
Exceptions to the basic rule regarding misdemeanor statutes of limitations are:
- Gaming Offense. Prosecution for a misdemeanor-related gaming offense must be initiated within six months after the offense was committed.
- Driver's License. Prosecution for criminal impersonation undertaken through a fraudulently obtained driver’s license must be initiated within one year of the date on which the driver’s license expires. Alternatively, the prosecution can be initiated within three years of the date the non-expired driver’s license was last used to falsely impersonate the person, whichever is longer.
Level of Offense
Example of Offense
Statute of Limitations
Crime punishable by life in prison or the death penalty
No statute of limitations
Class A felony
Class B felony
Class C felony
Class D felony
Class E felony
Theft of a firearm
Class A misdemeanor
Class B misdemeanor
Class C misdemeanor
Offenses arising under the revenue, or tax-related laws of Tennessee, must be initiated within three years following the commission of the offense.
The period of limitations is six years for the offense of:
- Defraud. Defrauding or attempting to defraud the state of Tennessee or any agency of the state, whether by conspiracy or not, and in any manner.
- Tax Evasion. Willfully attempting in any manner to evade or defeat any tax or the payment of a tax.
- Tax Fraud. Willfully aiding or counseling the preparation or presentation of a false or fraudulent tax return, whether or not the falsity or fraud is with the knowledge or consent of the person authorized or required to present the return, affidavit, claim or document.
- Tax Payment Failure. Willfully failing to pay any tax or make any tax return at the time required by tax or regulation.
Prosecution for arson must be initiated within eight years from the date the offender committed the act of arson.
Normal, Aggravated and Especially Aggravated Offenses
What makes a criminal offense normal, aggravated or especially aggravated in Tennessee depends on the type of offense. For example, a “normal” burglary without any aggravating circumstances is committed by a person who enters a building other than a habitation (like a home) that is not open to the public, with intent to commit a felony, theft or assault. The person must lack the consent of the property owner.
"Normal" Criminal Offenses
“Normal” burglary includes remaining concealed with the intent to commit a felony, theft or assault in a building.
It also includes entering a building and committing or attempting to commit a felony, theft or assault; entering a passenger car, automobile, truck, trailer, boat, airplane or other motor vehicle with the intent to commit a felony, theft or assault; or committing or attempting to commit a felony, theft or assault.
All of the “normal” types of burglary are Class D felonies except the offense involving entering a vehicle. The statute of limitations for a Class D felony is four years.
Aggravated Burglary Offenses
The statute of limitations for a Class E burglary is two years. Aggravated burglary is burglary of a habitation. Aggravated burglary is a Class C felony, which also has a statute of limitations of four years.
Especially Aggravated Burglary Offenses
Especially aggravated burglary is burglary of a habitation or a building other than a habitation, such as a business, where the victim suffers serious bodily injury. A victim here is defined as any person lawfully on the premises. Especially aggravated burglary is a Class B felony and has a statute of limitations of eight years.
Penalty and Limitations
The statute of limitations is different from the maximum period of incarceration for the offense. A statute of limitations is the length of time that the prosecutor has to charge an individual accused of perpetrating the crime.
The maximum period of incarceration is how long the person convicted of the crime can serve in jail or prison after the court has sentenced them. Generally, the court can sentence the person for less than the maximum period of incarceration.
Warrant for Failure to Appear
Failure to appear is defined as failing to appear in court as directed. A person is typically charged with failure to appear when they are a defendant and fail to appear for their criminal case. The provisions of the statute regarding failure to appear do not apply to witnesses.
Failure to appear is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days of incarceration and a fine up to $2,500. A sentence for failure to appear must be ordered to be served consecutively to the sentence for the offense for which the defendant failed to appear.
Serving Consecutive Sentences
“Consecutively” means the sentence for the initial charge must be served first, and the sentence for failure to appear must be served second.
For example, if a defendant was sentenced to 15 days in jail for public intoxication and three months in jail for failure to appear for the public intoxication case, they would have to serve a total of three months and 15 days in jail. The 15 days for the public intoxication charge would not count as time served for the failure to appear charge.
Issuance of Tennessee Arrest Warrants
When a person fails to appear, the court typically issues a warrant for their arrest. The court uses the term "bench warrant” to describe a warrant issued by a judge sitting in court. It authorizes the arrest of the person who failed to show. A person can be taken into custody by a law enforcement officer for an active warrant issued for failure to appear.
Further, a person can be taken into custody if they have any outstanding warrants for which the statute of limitations has not passed.
Requirements for Warrants
An affidavit of complaint is a legal document stating that a person has committed an offense. If an affidavit of complaint and supporting affidavits filed with it establish probable cause to believe an offense has been committed by the defendant, a magistrate or clerk shall issue an arrest warrant to an officer authorized by law to execute it.
An officer may be an agent of the sheriff’s office, like a sheriff’s deputy, or agents of a municipal police department, such as police officers. A magistrate or clerk may issue more than one warrant or criminal summons (an order to come to criminal court) on the same complaint.
A finding of probable cause may be based on evidence that is hearsay in whole or in part. Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. There must be a substantial basis to believe that the source of the hearsay is credible. There must be a factual basis for the information offered in the warrant.
Required Tennessee Warrant Information
In Tennessee, an arrest warrant must contain:
- Court Clerk Signature. Signature of the magistrate or court clerk.
- Defendant Name. If uncertain, name or description by which the defendant can be identified with reasonable certainty.
- County. County in which the warrant is issued.
- Offense. Offense charged in the affidavit of complaint.
- Order. Order that the defendant be arrested and brought before the nearest appropriate magistrate in the county of arrest.
A criminal summons usually contains the same information as the arrest warrant, but it is different in that it orders the defendant to appear before a magistrate at a stated time and place.
How a Warrant Is Executed
An arrest warrant is executed by an officer authorized by law, such as a sheriff’s deputy. A criminal summons is served by a person authorized to serve a summons in a civil action. An arrest warrant or criminal summons may be executed or served in any Tennessee county.
A law enforcement agency executes an arrest warrant by arresting the defendant. The arresting officer does not need to have the warrant in their possession at the time of the arrest. On request, they must show the warrant to the defendant as soon as possible.
If the arresting officer does not have the warrant at the time of the arrest, the officer must inform the defendant of the offense charged. They must also inform the defendant that a warrant has been issued.
Return of Warrant to the Court
The officer executing a warrant must return it to the magistrate, clerk or other officer of the court before whom the defendant is brought. On or before the return day, the person to whom a criminal summons is delivered for service must return the summons to the magistrate or clerk.
At the district attorney general’s request, any unexecuted warrant should be returned to the magistrate or clerk by whom it was issued. The magistrate will then cancel it.
There is no distinction in content between warrants issued for persons not yet arrested and warrants issued for persons already arrested without a warrant. Such a warrant serves two purposes. It is the authority for an arrest, if the arrest was not already lawfully made. It is also a statement of the charge to which the defendant must answer.
Tort of Unlawful Arrest
A person who has been arrested without a warrant or with an improperly executed warrant may be able to file a civil lawsuit for false arrest and false imprisonment. In such a case, the plaintiff must prove that they were detained or restrained against their will and the resulting detention or restraint was unlawful.
In this situation, the person who was arrested without a warrant or with an improperly executed warrant is the victim of the law enforcement officer's actions. They will be the plaintiff in a civil case.
When a Law Enforcement Officer is a Defendant
The defendant in the civil case will be the law enforcement officer. In order for the court to rule in favor of the plaintiff, the law enforcement officer must have acted without probable cause.
If a deputy appointed by the sheriff is held liable for an intentional tort, the sheriff themself may not be held liable for wrongs, injuries, losses, damages or expenses incurred because of their deputy's act or failure to act.
Statute of Limitations
A civil lawsuit for false arrest or imprisonment has a statute of limitations of one year from the commission of the date of the false arrest or imprisonment. The statute of limitations is two years if a law enforcement officer, district attorney general or grand jury brings criminal charges against the person who was falsely arrested or imprisoned.
It is required that the civil lawsuit be brought by the person injured by the criminal conduct of false arrest and false imprisonment.
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.