4 Things Tennessee Police Must Prove in a DUI
And how to legally challenge the conviction
on September 8, 2021
Updated on January 23, 2023
Tennessee takes drunk driving very seriously. According to data provided by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, state police issued approximately 7,000 DUI citations in 2018 alone. Many thousands more people were arrested by local law enforcement. Of course, an arrest is not the same thing as a conviction. In this article, you will find an overview of the key things that police and prosecutors must prove to obtain a driving under the influence conviction in Tennessee.
Know the Elements of DUI Laws in Tennessee
In the state of Tennessee, a driver convicted of a first-time DUI offense could face up to 11 months jail time and a $1,500 fine. Further, a motorist will face driver’s license revocation—potentially for a period of up to one year. Our state has graduated DUI penalties, meaning the maximum penalties are enhanced for subsequent drunk driving offenses after the first offense. To convict a person of a DUI, Tennessee law enforcement officers and prosecutors must prove the following four things:
- Control: To be guilty of a DUI offense in Tennessee, a defendant must be in actual physical control of the vehicle. In general, this element has been defined to include separate circumstances: Operation and physical possession. A person can be charged with a DUI if they are seen operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Additionally, they can also face DUI charges if they are found in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition.“People wrongfully believe that if they’re not driving, then they cannot be charged or convicted,” says Steve Oberman, a DUI attorney at the Oberman and Rice Law Firm in Knoxville. “A common scenario occurs when a person leaves a bar and decides they’re going to sleep it off in the parking lot. Then, because of the need to adjust the temperature or adjust the radio, they have their keys in the ignition—or even in their pocket. … The law basically says … the person is in position to be able to start the car, put it in motion. So if the keys are on the backseat floor, that’s probably better than having it in your pocket or on the dash.”
- Motor Vehicle: Tennessee’s DUI statute covers motor vehicles. Once again, this term is construed relatively broadly. It includes cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other motorized vehicles.
- Public Road (or Premises): In Tennessee, a person can be arrested for a DUI if they are in control of a motor vehicle on a public road or on a premises which is regularly used by the public. For example, if a person is stopped while intoxicated in a commercial parking lot at a retail store, they could still be arrested and charged with a drunk driving offense.
- Impairment: The final element is generally the most fiercely contested in DUI cases: Intoxication. Under Tennessee law, a driver is unlawfully intoxicated if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is at or above the legal limit of 0.08 or higher in a breathalyzer or other BAC test. Additionally, the Tennessee DUI statute also covers drugs. A defendant could be convicted of a DUI if deemed unlawfully impaired by a controlled substance.“You can actually have taken prescribed medication, and if it adversely affects your ability to drive, you can still be charged and convicted,” Oberman says. “It doesn’t have to be alcohol.”
Criminal Defense of a DUI Arrest
You can challenge a drunk driving charge on the grounds that one (or more) of the requirement elements has not been satisfied. Ultimately, the burden of proving all four elements of the charge falls on the prosecution. If you or your loved one was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, an experienced Tennessee DUI defense attorney will protect your rights and help you find the best path forward.
“I average about four or five calls per week from people who have tried to represent themselves, or hired a lawyer who is not qualified to handle DUI defense. It’s one of the most complicated areas of the law that we have,” Oberman says. “A good DUI defense lawyer must be familiar with search-and-seizure law; the chemistry of how alcohol and other substances are absorbed into, and eliminated from, the body; and, of course, the field sobriety tests that are administered by the police officers.
“People think there are no defenses to DUI,” he continues. “They figure, ‘Well, I was drinking and driving, so I must be guilty.’ That’s not at all true. Many times, lawyers are able to prevent incriminating evidence from being used against the defendant because the officer either violated their constitutional rights, administered a breath or blood test incorrectly or failed to use the proper procedures in administering the field sobriety test.”
To learn more about DUI convictions, please see our overview on DUI & DWI law.