4 Things Tennessee Police Must Prove in a DUI
And how to legally challenge the convictionBy Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on June 28, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Steven Oberman
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Requirement 1: Physical Control
- Requirement 2: Motor Vehicle
- Requirement 3: Public Road (or Premises)
- Requirement 4: Impairment
- Penalties for a DUI Offense in Tennessee
- Criminal Defense of a DUI Arrest
- Find an Experienced Tennessee DUI Lawyer
Tennessee takes drunk driving very seriously.
According to data provided by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, there were approximately 7,300 crashes involving an impaired driver in 2020 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 law enforcement officers and prosecutors must prove to obtain a driving under the influence (DUI) conviction in Tennessee.
Requirement 1: Physical Control
To be guilty of a DUI offense in Tennessee, a defendant must be in actual physical control of the vehicle.
A person can be charged with a DUI if they are seen operating a vehicle while intoxicated. They can also face DUI charges if they are found intoxicated 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 radio, they have their keys in the ignition—or even in their pocket… The law basically says that the person is in a position to be able to start the car and 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.”
Requirement 2: 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—but not, for example, a bicycle, which lacks a motor.
Requirement 3: 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.
Requirement 4: 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. Police officers can measure a person’s blood alcohol content using a breathalyzer/breath test, blood test, or urine test.
What gives police officers the right to test your BAC? Under Tennessee’s implied consent law, people who drive in the state have thereby given their consent to testing if law enforcement reasonably suspects intoxication. For example, an officer might have reasonable grounds to think you’re intoxicated if they see you swerving or driving on the curb. Refusing to test will result in driver’s license suspension.
The Tennessee DUI statute also covers drugs. “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.”
Penalties for a DUI Offense in Tennessee
Under Tennessee law, 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.
The state of Tennessee has graduated DUI penalties, meaning the maximum penalties are enhanced for subsequent drunk driving offenses after the first offense.
Criminal Defense of a DUI Arrest
You can challenge a drunk driving charge on the grounds that one (or more) of the required elements has not been satisfied. Ultimately, the burden of proving all four elements of the charge falls on the prosecution.
“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,” Oberman says.
“It’s one of the most complicated areas of the law that we have. 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.”
Find an Experienced Tennessee DUI Lawyer
If you are facing charges for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, consider contacting an experienced Tennessee DUI defense attorney as soon as possible to protect your legal rights and help you find the best path forward.
To learn more about DUI convictions, see our overview of DUI/DWI law.
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