Tennessee DUI Laws

Tennessee DUI Laws: The Elements

Tennessee DUI laws are outlined in section 55 of Tennessee Code Annotated.  Under the law, the State of Tennessee must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the following three elements:

  • you were driving or in physical control of a motor vehicle;
  • you were driving on a public street, parking lot, or any other place frequented by the public;
  • you were under the influence of an intoxicant to the extent that it impairs your ability to safety operate a motor vehicle; OR you were operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of .08% or greater.

Although the definition/elements are very simple at first glance, the language of the law has resulted in very inconsistent decisions from the highest courts in the State of Tennessee.  Therefore, if you are arrested for DUI, it is important to have an attorney that knows the case law and understands the ambiguous nature of our DUI statute.

Tennessee DUI Laws: Physical Control

Although you may have not been actually driving when you were arrested, you can still be convicted of DUI based on your physical control of the vehicle.  So, the next question to ask is, "What is physical control?"

Under Tennessee DUI Laws, physical control has no clear definition, which is why the court's various decisions on "physical control" cases are extremely inconsistent.  It basically depends on where you are in the vehicle, along with the location of your car keys.  Questions to ask include:

  • Was the operator of the vehicle asleep?  If so, was the operator asleep in the driver's seat or passenger seat?
  • Where were the keys to the vehicle?  Were the keys in the ignition or in the operator's pocket?
  • Was the vehicle running?
  • Where was the vehicle parked?
  • Were there any passengers in the vehicle that could have been driving?

These few questions are just an example of the literally hundreds of items the court could consider in determining whether you were actually in physical control of your vehicle.  If the court does rule that you are in physical control, then it is likely you will either have to plead guilty or take your chances with a jury trial.

Safely Operating a Motor Vehicle

The largest source of contention among defense attorneys and prosecutors is whether the driver is impaired.  Obviously, if someone has a high blood alcohol level, then they will likely be found guilty.  However, there may be an instance where the State of Tennessee does not have a blood sample.  What happens in those cases? 

The answer partly depends on the reason for the stop.  In most of these cases, the law enforcement officer will have a copy of a video, which will show the entire stop.  The reason for the stop determines whether you could be considered impaired.  Under Tennessee jury instructions, intoxication means that a person is too impaired to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Why were you stopped:

  • Were you speeding?
  • Did you have a taillight or headlight out?
  • Were you swerving into other lanes of traffic?
  • Did you have expired registration?
  • Did you run a stop sign or red light?

These are the basic reasons someone is stopped and later arrested for DUI.  However, only a few of these examples may be evidence that someone is too impaired to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Speeding and having a headlight out does not constitute bad driving.  Your attorney could argue that there was no impairment beyond your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.  However, if you were swerving or running red lights, then the State of Tennessee could argue that you were not operating your vehicle in a safe manner.  Therefore, the reason for the traffic stop is extremely important in these cases.  You need to hire an attorney that is aware of these issues, then you can make a more informed decision about your case.