Tennessee Trespassing Laws: What You Need to Know

Tennessee: Fast Facts on Trespassing

  • Trespass Law Covers: Buildings, dwellings, land, vehicles.
  • Crime Class: Misdemeanor.
  • Fencing Required?: Yes, if no signage/paint markings present.
  • Signage Required?: Yes, if no fencing/barriers to entry present.
  • Verbal Notice Required?: No.
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Tennessee Trespassing Law Overview

Tennessee’s trespassing laws are reasonably easy to understand and for the most part common sense, although Tennessee is interesting in that they classify two kinds of criminal trespassing, criminal trespassing and aggravated criminal trespassing, along with trespassing by motor vehicle and a special kind of trespassing that is committed if someone flies a drone over the non-regulated airspace of someone else’s property. There is specific language in the state statutes.

All kinds of trespassing are classed as misdemeanors in the state of Tennessee, though some of them are high-grade misdemeanors which will net you a significant fine, and potentially a months- or year-long stint in jail.

You shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding Tennessee’s statutes on trespassing with the exception of one very lengthy section we will go over in detail below.

Relevant Tennessee State Statutes

  • 39-14-401 Definitions for burglary and related offenses
  • 39-14-405 Criminal trespass
  • 39-14-406 Aggravated criminal trespass
  • 39-14-407 Trespass by motor vehicle
  • 39-14-409 Exceptions

We begin as always with the definitions for the state statutes. No matter how good you might be with the written word, you must always read and understand the definitions for any legal document.

Especially state and federal level legalese common words might have meanings that you would not anticipate or that don’t even particularly make sense. This can change the meaning and thereby the effect of an entire passage.

Tennessee’s definitions for burglary and related offenses are found in 39-14-401:

39-14-401. Definitions for burglary and related offenses.

As used in this part, unless the context otherwise requires:

(1) “Habitation”:

(A) Means any structure, including buildings, module units, mobile homes, trailers, and tents, which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons;

(B) Includes a self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons and is actually occupied at the time of initial entry by the defendant; and

(C) Includes each separately secured or occupied portion of the structure or vehicle and each structure appurtenant to or connected with the structure or vehicle;

(2) “Occupied” means the condition of the lawful physical presence of any person at any time while the defendant is within the habitation or other building; and

(3) “Owner” means a person in lawful possession of property whether the possession is actual or constructive. “Owner” does not include a person, who is restrained from the property or habitation by a valid court order or order of protection, other than an ex parte order of protection, obtained by the person maintaining residence on the property.


So, the specific use of the word “habitation” as opposed to “structure”, “property” or other terms in the state statutes means any building or any vehicle that is designed or adapted to accommodate the occupancy of people overnight.

In layman’s terms it is designed to sleep in. So your typical house, cabin, hotel room and so forth are habitations.

A warehouse will not be a habitation unless someone was sleeping in it on a cot or Murphy bed or something like that. An RV is a habitation but a sedan is not unless, seemingly, that someone had chosen to sleep overnight inside the sedan.

In this case as codified by paragraph 3 the owner of a habitation is anyone who is in lawful possession of the property whether or not actual or constructive.

You cannot illegally enter or occupy property and claim it is not trespassing just because the real, deeded owner is away and one of their agents or someone trusted is watching over it.

We get to the actual meat of criminal trespass just a couple of sections later in 39-14-405:

39-14-405. Criminal trespass.

(a) A person commits criminal trespass if the person enters or remains on property, or any portion of property, without the consent of the owner. Consent may be inferred in the case of property that is used for commercial activity available to the general public or in the case of other property when the owner has communicated the owner’s intent that the property be open to the general public.

(b) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that:

(1) A person entered or remained on property that the person reasonably believed to be property for which the owner’s consent to enter had been granted;

(2) The person’s conduct did not substantially interfere with the owner’s use of the property; and

(3) The person immediately left the property upon request.

(c) The defenses to prosecution set out in subsection (b) shall not be applicable to a person violating this section if the property owner:

(1) Posts the property with signs that are visible at all major points of ingress to the property being posted and the signs are reasonably likely to come to the attention of a person entering the property; or

(2) Places identifying purple paint marks on trees or posts on the property; provided, that at least one (1) sign is 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 and that the sign includes language describing that the use of purple paint signifies “no trespassing.” If purple paint is used, then purple paint must be vertical lines of not less than eight inches (8″) in length and not less than one inch (1″) in width; placed so that the bottom of the mark is not less than three feet (3′) or more than five feet (5′) from the ground; and placed at locations that are reasonably likely to come to the attention of a person entering the property.

(d) For purposes of this section, “enter” means intrusion of the entire body or when a person causes an unmanned aircraft to enter that portion of the airspace above the owner’s land not regulated as navigable airspace by the federal aviation administration.

(e) Entering or remaining on railroad or utility right-of-way property by an adjoining landowner for usual and customary activities of the type defined in §§ 1-3-105(a)(2)(A)(i) and (ii), (B) and (C) and 43-1-113(a), (b)(1)(A) and (B), (b)(2) and (b)(3) shall not be considered trespass under this section. This subsection (e) shall not apply if the railroad or utility right-of-way owner, by a personal communication or posting at the site by someone with either actual authority or apparent authority to act for the railroad or utility right-of-way owner, has communicated to the adjoining landowner that the activity is not permitted.

(g) Criminal trespass is a Class C misdemeanor.

(h) For purposes of this section, there shall be no inference of the owner’s consent nor shall the defense in subsection (b) be available to a person entering and remaining on the grounds, or in the common areas, such as lobbies, hallways, courtyards, and parking lots, of a housing or apartment complex having signs posted in compliance with subsection (c) unless the person:

(1) Has the actual consent of the owner;

(2) May lawfully enter the property by virtue of the person’s occupational duties; or

(3) Has a contractual right to enter the property or is an invitee of someone with a contractual right to make invitations to enter the property.


Okay there is a little bit to unpack in this section, so let’s get to it. Generally speaking, someone is committing criminal trespass if they enter or remain on any property, or any portion attached to a property without the explicit consent of the owner.

The only general exemption to this is if a property is made available for general public use, saying the case of a business or something like that. In that case, explicit permission is implied and need not be obtained.

Now, unlike some other states Tennessee does spell out some affirmative defenses to the charge of criminal trespassing.

One is if the would-be trespasser enters or remains on a property believing that they have obtained the owner’s consent, they were not there to cause mischief or otherwise interfere with the use of the property and furthermore, if requested, they leave immediately when ordered to do so by the owner or the owner’s authorized agent.

If this sounds fairly tricky, it sort of is, and it sounds to me like it is generally just there to protect people who are acting in good faith in case of a disagreement over whether or not they are allowed to be there after being invited.

But once you have that well in hand you also need to know that there are explicit disallowances of those defenses. These come in the form of posted notice, either in the form of signs or conspicuous purple paint slashes on trees or post markers around the perimeter of the property.

In the case of signs they must be posted at all major points entering the property, so roads, trails, foot paths, driveways, etc. and in the case of the purple paint marks they must also be accompanied by at least one sign posted at the major point of ingress to the property. The paint marks must also be a certain size and height off the ground to be valid.

Also, have a gander at subsection (d): if you fly your unmanned aircraft, meaning a remotely operated drone, over someone’s property that is trespassing under the law! Lastly, trespassing in this way is considered a Class C misdemeanor.

Moving on, there’s a more severe variation of criminal trespassing in Tennessee, unimaginatively named aggravated criminal trespass which simply makes it a worse misdemeanor:

39-14-406. Aggravated criminal trespass.

(a) A person commits aggravated criminal trespass who enters or remains on property when:

(1) The person knows the person does not have the property owner’s effective consent to do so; and

(2) The person intends, knows, or is reckless about whether such person’s presence will cause fear for the safety of another; or

(3) The person, in order to gain entry to the property, destroys, cuts, vandalizes, alters or removes a gate, signage, fencing, lock, chain or other barrier designed to keep trespassers from entering the property.

(b) For purposes of this section, “enter” means intrusion of the entire body.

(c) Aggravated criminal trespass is a Class B misdemeanor unless it was committed in a habitation, in a building of any hospital, or on the campus, property, or facilities of any private or public school, in which event it is a Class A misdemeanor.

(d) (1) A person also commits aggravated criminal trespass who enters or remains on the real property, including the right-of-way, of a railroad:

(A) With the intent to do harm to the property or to railroad property located on the property; or

(B) With the intent to do harm to another person or knowing that their presence will harm another person.

(2) Aggravated criminal trespass on railroad property is a Class A misdemeanor.


Note there are additional subsections in this one that detail the charges in specifics regarding trespassing on construction sites, what specific language must be on the signage bordering trespassing on those construction sites and so forth that I have omitted for brevity.

In layman’s terms, aggravated criminal trespassing is committed when someone trespasses knowing they do not have the owner’s permission, does so with the intent to cause mischief and furthermore removes signage in an attempt either cover their tracks or validate their crime, or alternately defeats locks, chains, other barricades and so on barring entry to the property.

So in short, if you are trespassing and know you’re trespassing and are trespassing for some malicious purpose that is aggravated criminal trespassing.

Now we get into Tennessee’s first special trespassing law, that of trespass by motor vehicle:

39-14-407. Trespass by motor vehicle.

(a) Any person who drives, parks, stands, or otherwise operates a motor vehicle on, through or within a parking area, driving area or roadway located on privately owned property which is provided for use by patrons, customers or employees of business establishments upon that property, or adjoining property or for use otherwise in connection with activities conducted upon that property, or adjoining property, after the person has been requested or ordered to leave the property or to cease doing any of the foregoing actions commits a Class C misdemeanor with no incarceration permitted. A request or order under this section may be given by a law enforcement officer or by the owner, lessee, or other person having the right to the use or control of the property, or any authorized agent or representative thereof, including, but not limited to, private security guards hired to patrol the property.

(b) As used in this section, “motor vehicle” includes an automobile, truck, van, bus, recreational vehicle, camper, motorcycle, motor bike, moped, go-cart, all terrain vehicle, dune buggy, and any other vehicle propelled by motor.


Pretty simple, really. If you are driving while operating any motorized conveyance that you leave parked, running or not, on any paved parking or driving area that is a part of any privately owned property which is a business you have to move it or leave if you are asked otherwise you’re committing trespass by motor vehicle.

This is only a Class C misdemeanor, which means it does not permit incarceration in punishment, but it is a crime nonetheless.

Conclusion

Tennessee trespassing laws are pretty standard, with the few standout exceptions being a separate statute for motor vehicle trespassing and the act of flying an unmanned drone over someone’s property, at least in the lower airspace, which also constitutes trespassing.

At any rate, any form of trespassing in the state is on the misdemeanor penalty schedule, so you don’t need to worry about getting tagged with a felony if your drone drifts off course.

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