Refusing an alcohol breath test in Tennessee: What you should know

Drivers in Tennessee do have the right to refuse a breath test; however, there are certain penalties that may apply.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol arrested 8,420 people on charges of drunk driving in the year 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. In a DUI stop, the law enforcement officer typically asks the same questions that he or she would ask other drivers. If he or she suspects alcohol consumption, the driver may be asked to get out of the vehicle and perform field sobriety tests. Based on the outcome of these tests, the law enforcement officer may place the person under arrest for drunk driving.

Up until the arrest, any tests administered are considered voluntary. However, once the person is under arrest, there are mandatory tests that may be administered. Here, we take a look at Tennessee's implied consent laws and what happens if a motorist refuses a test.

What is implied consent?

Every state in the country has some form of implied consent law. This compels motorists to submit to either a breath or blood test upon being arrested for drunk driving or related charges. Essentially, someone who obtains a driver's license in Tennessee is inherently consenting to these tests when they get behind the wheel.

Can I refuse a breath or blood test?

Drivers arrested for DUI do have the right to refuse a breath or a blood test. In Tennessee, a driver may not be forced to take a breath or blood test unless a search warrant is obtained or exigent circumstance exists. A test may be compelled if there is an accident involving injury or death of another, if a child under 16 years of age is in the vehicle, or if the person has a prior conviction for DUI or related offense. If a person is unconscious, a blood test may be administered if a search warrant is obtained or one of the above exigent circumstances is present.

What are the penalties for refusing a test?

While an implied consent violation is generally considered a civil offense, there are some circumstances under which refusal is considered a Class A Misdemeanor. There are administrative civil penalties that may result, even if the driver is not convicted of the DUI. The first time someone refuses a breath or blood test, he or she faces a license suspension of one year. The penalties increase for subsequent offenses or when injury or death results from an accident:

  • Two years' suspension for someone with a prior conviction of DUI
  • Two years' suspension if the incident causes an accident resulting in serious bodily injury to one or more persons

Five years suspension if involved in a fatal accident

If my license is suspended, how will I get to work?

In some cases, it is possible for someone whose license has been suspended to apply for a restricted license. With that license, he or she may be able to get to work or school as well as drive to a court-ordered alcohol-related program. An interlock device may also be required before a person convicted of DUI is allowed to drive again, even with a restricted license.

Anyone who has concerns about this issue should speak with a criminal defense attorney in Tennessee.