As a driver in the state of Tennessee, it is important to know your rights if you are pulled over and suspected of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The penalties for a DUI can be harsh, expensive, and inconvenient, so being prepared for this unfortunate situation and knowing what to do in the presence of law enforcement officials will increase a driver’s chances of avoiding such unpleasant consequences as loss of driving privileges and criminal charges.

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DUI Penalties in Tennessee

It is important to keep in mind the penalties involved if convicted of a DUI in Tennessee. Based on driving history and previous offenses, the jail time, fines, and additional requirements are as follows:

  • 1st Offense – Up to 11 months 29 days in jail, $350-$1000 in fines, DUI School and/or Victim Impact Panel, and possible Ignition Interlock Device (IID). Mandatory 7 days in jail if BAC is over .20%. 1-year license revocation.
  • 2nd Offense – Mandatory 45 days in jail with up to 11 months 29 days possible, $600-$3,500 in fines, and mandatory IID. 2 years license revocation.
  • 3rd Offense – Mandatory 120 days in jail with up to 11 months 29 days possible, $1,100-$10,000 in fines, and mandatory IID. 6 years license revocation.
  • 4th or 5th Offense – Class E Felony, mandatory 150 days in jail with 1 to 6 years possible, $3,000-$15,000 in fines, mandatory IID, and classified as a felony. 8 years license revocation.
  • 6th Offense – Class C Felony, mandatory 150 days in jail with 3 to 15 years possible, $3,000-$15,000 in fines, mandatory IID, and classified as a felony. 8 years license revocation.

Each of these offenses carries an additional $100 in special assessment fees and the possibility of an alcohol monitoring device. For the second and subsequent offenses an alcohol and drug assessment, inpatient rehabilitation, and vehicle forfeiture may all apply as well. As evidenced above, the serious financial and restrictive consequences of a DUI conviction should be taken into account by all drivers.

Definitions and Commonly Used Terms

It is important for drivers to familiarize themselves with common terms and definitions used in Tennessee regarding DUI laws so that when faced with a traffic stop and suspicion of DUI, there is less room for confusion and error:

  • Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) – The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream as measured in percentages. A BAC of .08% is the limit in Tennessee.
  • Chemical Test – This is a test used to determine the amount of alcohol or drugs in a driver’s system through a breath, blood, or urine test.
  • Standardized Field Sobriety Test – A set of mental and physical coordination tests law enforcement officers use to determine if a driver is under the influence.
  • Commercial Driver’s License – A special driver’s license, also known as a CDL, granted for the operation of heavier and more complex vehicles. These are classified under categories A, B, and C.

Indicators of Alcohol Impairment

There are several indicators of alcohol impairment that law enforcement officers look for during a traffic stop. They include the following:

  • The Odor of Alcohol – This can be the result of a small amount of alcohol consumption or an odor from clothing or shoes.
  • Weaving or an Unusual Pattern of Driving – In this age of distracted drivers, an unusual pattern of driving is commonplace, absent the use of alcohol.
  • Slurred Speech – Speech development issues, exhaustion, and dental problems can all lead to slurred speech.
  • Bloodshot, Watery Eyes – Cigarette smoke, exposure to harsh chemicals, and certain eye diseases can all cause red, glassy eyes.
  • Difficulty Producing Requested Documents – The anxiety associated with a traffic stop can cause a driver to act nervous or clumsy.

While these factors are sometimes a sign of alcohol impairment in drivers, there are alternate explanations for all of the indicators, as illustrated above. Knowing the signs that law enforcement officers look for is important when a driver is pulled over and suspected of driving under the influence.

Implied Consent and Refusal of Testing

The implied consent law applies to all drivers in Tennessee. In essence, the implied consent law states that drivers who have been arrested for DUI are required to submit breath, blood, and/or urine for chemical testing if requested by law enforcement officials who have probable cause for a DUI arrest. A driver can refuse the testing but will face suspension of his or her driving privileges based on previous convictions and if injuries or death are involved. The length of suspension is detailed below:

  •  1st Offense – 1 Year Suspension
  • 1st Offense with Crash Involving Injury – 2 Year Suspension
  • 1st Offense with Crash Involving Death – 5 Year Suspension
  • 2nd Offense – 2 Year Suspension

If a driver refuses chemical testing, he or she can request a hearing in court to challenge the suspension of their driving privileges. A driver and his or her attorney must prove to the court that the law enforcement officer involved did not fully explain the consequences of the test refusal to the driver. If the court denies the driver’s claims, a restricted driving permit can sometimes be approved for travel to work and school.

Blood Alcohol Limits

If a driver does choose to submit to chemical testing with breath, blood, or urine testing, the age and/or license classification of a driver can affect the allowed BAC limit in Tennessee. It is important to know that for certain groups, penalties may be harsher if they test at or above the limits listed below:

  • Under 21 Years of Age -.02% BAC or over
  • 21 Years of Age and Over – .08% BAC or over
  • Commercial Licensed Drivers – .04% BAC or over

Refusal of Field Sobriety Test

The Standardized Field Sobriety Test, or FST, is not mandatory under the implied consent law and can be refused by any driver without affecting his or her driving privileges. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has estimated that law enforcement officials incorrectly detect impairment in nine of every one hundred Field Sobriety Tests. The best advice is to refuse the Field Sobriety Test as it is more likely than not to be detrimental to a DUI case. The FST can include the following coordination tests:

  • One-Leg Stand Test
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test
  • Walk and Turn Test
  • Finger to Nose Test
  • Finger Count Test
  • Backward Count Test
  • Alphabet Test

While the tests involved may sound simple, many factors can negatively affect the score, including medical problems, bone or muscle conditions, age, weight, footwear, and the conditions of the test surface. Law enforcement officers are not required to inform drivers that they can refuse to perform the FST – politely declining is the best strategy.

Remembering Your Rights

No matter the circumstances of a traffic stop and arrest for driving under the influence, if a driver commits to memory the information in this article, he or she has a much higher chance of successfully challenging the case in court and avoiding the severe penalties and expenses associated with a DUI in Tennessee.

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