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Tennessee DUI Process

Tennessee’s DUI Process and Laws explained

Tennessee DUI laws are extremely complex and the process is extremely difficult to understand unless you are a seasoned criminal defense lawyer.  The following information summarizes the typical steps that occur in the Tennessee Criminal Justice System when the accused is arrested for driving under the influence in Tennessee.  This article covers the time the defendant is arrested through the trial in criminal court.  In order to understand the Tennessee DUI Process, simply remember that Tennessee has a two tier process where cases are heard in both General Sessions Court and Criminal Court.  The procedures of these two separate courts are completely different.  However, the laws and elements that govern the case are identical.

Tennessee Court Structure (From DUI Arrest to Trial Court)

Arrest:

In order to be a lawful arrest, the police officer must have probable cause to believe that a crime is being, or has been committed.  This is the first essential element under Tennessee’s DUI laws.  Often this element is met through the use of evidence gathered as part of the field sobriety testing.  In Tennessee DUI cases, it may only be the officer's opinion that the accused is "under the influence" and this opinion evidence maybe the only evidence offered at trial.  This may seem unfair but Tennessee laws have held that this is sufficient to sustain a driving under the influence conviction.

Arraignment or First Appearance:

After the accused has made bond, the court will set a first appearance or arraignment date.  The date serves as a reminder so that the defendant can know the nature of their charges and serves as a notice for future court dates.  The court will not give you any legal advice or inform you of the possible penalties of a drunken driving conviction.  In many counties, this date serves as the defendant’s first chance to plead their case.  This is particularly true for Nashville cases.  As a rule of thumb, always be prepared to proceed with your case.  It is a better practice to consult with an experienced attorney well in advance of your first court date.  This allows you to formulate a strategy for your defense.  This first court date could be your best opportunity to avoid a conviction.  If the case can’t be resolved on the first court date, the court will set a trial date in General Sessions Court.

General Sessions Court

General Sessions has primary jurisdiction over most DUI cases in Tennessee.  Most cases are resolved through a plea agreement.  If a plea agreement cannot be reached, the defendant can either opt for a preliminary hearing or bench trial.  A preliminary hearing requires the state to establish probable cause which is a very low threshold level of evidence.  Usually, the court will find that probable cause does exist.  Then, the case will be presented to the Grand Jury.  Preliminary hearings are essential to development of a solid defense strategy.  Here, the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s case are revealed.  It is the best means to set up a DUI case for a jury trial or later plea discussions.

Grand Jury

The Grand Jury is a secretive body that consists of 13 ordinary citizens.  They meet in order to determine if probable cause exists for the prosecution.  This is a secretive procedure where the prosecutor puts on a one-side mini-trial.  The defendant is not allowed to put on any evidence.  Due to this one-sided nature, most DUI cases are “true billed.”  This simply means the prosecution will continue and another court date in Criminal Court will follow.

Trial Court

In Criminal Court, the defendant will be given another arraignment date where they will again enter a not guilty plea.  Plea discussions will continue with the state and a settlement date will be set in the near future.  Here, the defendant has an absolute right to jury trial and one will most likely be set.  The accused is presumed innocent and they have a right to make the state prove their guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in front of 12 jurors.  At the trial, they have the right to confront their accuser, remain silent, and compel the appearance of any witnesses.  Prior to the trial, strategic motions will be filed in order to advance the defendant’s cause.  These motions are discussed below.

A. Pre-Trial Motions:

Pre-trial motions are essential to a successful DUI practice.  These motions help the accused assert their rights.  A partial list of is provided below.

Motion for Discovery: This motion compels the government to produce certain documents for the defense’s inspection.  Here, police reports, videotapes, and other documents must be produced by the prosecutor.  This motion is limited to only the DUI cases that are indicted by the Grand Jury and does not generally apply to cases in the General Sessions Court level.  However, a skilled lawyer will still know how to get most of these documents through diplomacy in the lower court.

Motion to Produce and Preserve Evidence: Tennessee law requires the government to produce and preserve certain types of evidence.  Scientific tests used to produce blood samples are often requested for independent analysis.  If a blood sample is lost or destroyed, the defense may have grounds for a dismissal.  Likewise, the certification documents for breath testing devices can also be requested.  These documents allow the defendant an opportunity to determine if the breath testing device is accurate and maintenance is up to date.

Motion to suppress the traffic stop: The arresting officer must have legal justification to in order to conduct a traffic stop.  This is known as probable cause.  Probable cause requires that the officer explain with particular articulable facts as to why he made the traffic stop.  The stop cannot be based upon a mere hunch.  It must be supported by articulable facts that either a crime or traffic violation occurred.  Many traffic stops have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.  When this occurs, the entire case will be dismissed.  These motions often help in plea discussions.

B. Trial:

The concept of a trial is very familiar to most people because it is what they have seen on television or the movies.  We have all seen the great trials scenes in A Few Good Men and To Kill a Mockingbird.  These scenes are great but they can be unrealistic as far as trial procedures are concerned.  I have never personally seen a witness confess to a crime or break down with a tearful confession.  However, good cross examination skills are essential to a successful DUI defense strategy because they help weaken the government’s case while enforcing the defense’s strong points.   A trial has several mini-stages that I will discuss below.

Opening Statement: Both parties are allowed several minutes to give a brief summary of the facts to the Judge and jury.  They are only allowed to address the facts that they expect the evidence will show.  Speculation evidence is not allowed.

The State’s Case: The prosecution will put on evidence that you committed the crime of DUI.  Most of the evidence will come from the arresting officer and his opinions of the roadside tests along with any chemical tests.  Then, the defense is given an opportunity to cross examine the witness in order to point out any weaknesses in the state’s case.  The state is allowed a redirect of the witness once the defense is finished.  Sometimes, the judge will ask questions of a witness.  

Half time: After the government puts on all its evidence in its case in chief, they will rest.  Then, the judge must consider if the prosecution’s case is sufficient to continue the trial.  If not, the case will be dismissed.  If the evidence in sufficient, the trial will continue.

Defense Evidence: The Defendant has an opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence in his behalf or they can refrain.  If a defense if put forward, the prosecution has a right to cross-exam any defense witnesses.  They can also call rebuttal witnesses to rebut the Defendant’s case.  Once the defense is finished, they rest and closing arguments are made.

Closing Statements: This is where the movies shine.  Here each side will give a summary as to what they think the evidence has shown and how it applies to the law.  These arguments are extremely important and cases can actually be won here.

After the conclusion of the trial, the jury or court renders its decision. If a guilty verdict is returned, the court will proceed to sentencing.  If a not guilty verdict is returned, the defendant is free to leave without punishment.   Goodness wins and the evil empire is defeated.

Of important note, a plea agreement is still a possibility the day of trial and is not uncommon.  This is a direct result of plea discussions between the prosecution and defense.  A judge is not bound by the decision of the parties but they will usually follow the recommendations of the government.  In fact, I have never had a judge refuse to accept a plea the day of trial but there is always the first time.

Sentencing: The court can impose a sentence the day of trial or they can opt for a further sentencing hearing.  Usually, the judge will ask for a recommendation by the state and defense.  The judge will most likely follow these recommendations unless they are both totally unreasonable.  For this reason, it is important that a defendant be proactive in seeking alcohol counseling if they need help.  This approach will soften the blow if the court determines that the defendant’s efforts are sincere.  The judge has several options is sentencing by placing any conditions on the probation he wishes, including mandatory DUI classes, fines, court costs, community service, and mandatory jail time.  The judge can exceed the mandatory minimums if they so choose.

Appeal: In Tennessee, a defendant has an absolute right to appeal any ruling by the trial court. They can appeal both the conviction for DUI and/or the sentence.  Appeals can also be used to overturn any adverse rulings on the motions brought before the court.

I hope this information helps.  If you need help with a driving under the influence charge in Tennessee, give me a call at 615-345-1988.