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WARNING: Overnight Parking on Public Land is Now a Felony in Tennessee (up to 6 Years in Prison)

Overnight parking in Tennessee just got more complicated. 

RVers know how convenient it is to park overnight in a Walmart parking lot. Long trips require stops, and there’s not always an RV park available for the night. 

Beginning July 1, 2022, however, if you’re planning a stop in Tennessee, there’s some new information you’ll want to know. 

Buckle up, and let’s dive in!

It’s Now a Felony to Park Overnight on Public Land in Tennessee

It’s already a felony to camp on most state-owned property in Tennessee (other than official campgrounds). If authorities catch you camping on state land, they could cite and charge you. The state designed the new law to include public lands as well.

Public lands include parks, highways, and overpasses. Governor Lee refused to sign the bill into law, but the legislature passed it regardless. 

Camping in areas already designated for camping will, of course, still be legal.

For the bill to affect you, authorities must give you 24 hours’ notice of the violation, and you must refuse to vacate. While the state hasn’t prosecuted anyone under the existing law, the new bill has teeth. 

If you’re found guilty, you could face jail time and fines. The bill also adds a Class C misdemeanor punishable with a $50 fine and community service for certain offenses such as parking overnight under a Tennessee overpass. 

Why Did Tennessee Pass the Law?

The law passed in April directly focuses on one thing, homelessness. There’s been an influx of people experiencing homelessness over the last few years. Some counts in Tennessee alone put numbers between 2,000 and 7,200 people at any given time. 

With numbers rising in recent years, spaces for people experiencing homelessness in shelters have dwindled. Living in a car or vehicle is the only option for many of them. As numbers increase, the visibility of these people rises, which is what led to the new ordinance. 

One reason legislators cite is for keeping parks from being taken over by people experiencing homelessness. 

In cities during the spike in homelessness in 2020-2021, homeless camps sprang up in city parks and under overpasses. Officials felt that the camps were unsafe, unsanitary, and mostly just unsightly. 

Homeless encampments are a problem when you’re trying to project an image of prosperity around town. The new statute attempts to address the issue without directly attacking the homeless. Although, there are provisions that make it illegal to panhandle near highways. 

Many people experiencing homelessness are trying to get out of poverty however they can. They face additional challenges if arrested and convicted under the new statute. Getting public assistance with a felony on your record is nearly impossible. 

People experiencing homelessness often have jobs they must be close to, and camping in the same area is common. Once warned, as cited under the law, authorities may also confiscate their camping items. Not only are they at the risk of a felony, but they also lose their personal belongings. 

Additionally, the new ordinance targets protesters. When racial justice protests were underway in 2020, penalties increased for camping on state-owned property. Instead of attacking First Amendment rights, just cite them for public camping and arrest away!

What Happens If You’re Caught Parking Overnight on Public Land in Tennessee?

If you’re caught parking overnight on Tennessee public lands, you have a couple of options. Under the law, you must be given 24 hours’ notice before being arrested and charged. Public locations covered under the new decree include public parks and underpasses. 

The misdemeanor charges cover camping overnight near highways. In the legislation, camping activities are defined as “putting up a tent or furniture, storing personal belongings or food, cooking, sleeping, and starting a fire.” If you do these things, the police have the right to challenge you. 

People experiencing homelessness are not the only ones who fall into these categories. Legislators repeatedly state that the new law does not criminalize homelessness. However, it’s clear they’re attempting to force people into shelters. 

Homeless advocates say that criminalizing homelessness, or sleeping rough, pushes people further away from the help they need. Without access to services, these individuals are more likely to continue to experience homelessness. 

The question becomes, are RVers included in the bill? If you plan to stay in the same spot for more than 24 hours in a public setting, it seems the answer is yes. 

So what can you do if you’re driving through Tennessee and have to park somewhere overnight? Several legal options are available that will keep you on the right side of the law. Boondocking, or dispersed camping, is one option if you’re trying to go on the cheap.

Landowners open up space for RVers and campers alike for free, legal camping. Look at sites such as Boondockers Welcome, Campendium, AllStays, and FreeRoam.

Another option is paid campgrounds. Places like KOA offer affordable and secure sites for overnight camping. Especially when you consider fines you might incur from the new law, the sites at KOA seem like a steal. 

Added benefits include access to showers and restroom facilities, cabins if you want a change of pace, and other amenities. KOA has an app and website that offer access to all of its sites around the country. You can also get discounts through the app. 

Laws often have unintended consequences. And while Tennessee legislators are focused on fixing their homelessness problem, the overnight parking law is vague. RVers may run into issues in Tennessee unless they pay close attention to local ordinances. Our best advice is to keep to the legal sites and use information as your best defense.

What do you think of this new Tennessee law?

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