Attorneys Jerry Summers, Ben McGowan, and Marya Schalk of Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers recently won a major victory for Tennessee DUI defendants. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that the statute imposing a $250 fee for convictions in DUI cases where testing is done by the TBI laboratory is unconstitutional because it violates due process and a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The system works like this. When a defendant is found guilty of DUI, they are required to pay $250 directly to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The fee goes into a specific fund for the TBI in which it can pay the salaries of the forensic scientists that perform the tests, as well as other expenditures designated by the TBI. Since the system was set up in 2005, the TBI has made over $22 million.
The problem is that the TBI only collects the fee when it wins and that the TBI is responsible for the testing of the most important piece of evidence in any DUI case. That creates a conflict of interest.
This is especially troubling for defendants with limited resources to defend themselves and to challenge the results of the blood or breath tests. Most DUI cases are resolved by plea agreement, meaning that many defendants, even when they can afford to, do not challenge blood results.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals said that it could not ignore the reality that the TBI gets paid a fee for convictions but not for acquittals or in cases of reduced or dismissed charges.
“Because the money from the $250 fee is placed directly in the intoxicant testing fund, which is ‘designated for exclusive use by the TBI,’ there is no question that the TBI, an agency of the state, has a direct [monetary] interest in securing convictions,” the court wrote.
The TBI has denied there is any conflict of interest.
What happens to DUI cases now?
The finding that the fee-based system is unconstitutional theoretically affects any defendant found guilty under that system. If applied retroactively, it could potentially affect hundreds or thousands of DUI cases.
Going forward, there are questions that will have to be determined. Will TBI tests be inadmissible as evidence? Evidence gathered through an unconstitutional method is generally suppressed. Would that include only blood tests or Breathalyzer tests, as well? Some of those questions will be answered as defense attorneys challenge the evidence.
The Chattanooga Police Department says that the ruling will not change its DUI enforcement. Hamilton County prosecutors may try to place DUI cases involving blood tests on hold until the issue is clarified. However, doing so could potentially affect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
The attorney general’s office has indicated that it will seek review of this decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court.