Tennessee DUI Law
Tennessee DUI Process
Tennessee Process Explained
The following information summarizes the typical steps that occur in the Tennessee Criminal Justice System when the accused is arrested for DUI 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 the Criminal Trial Court.
Tennessee Court Structure (From DUI Arrest to Trial Court)
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. In DUI cases, it may only be the officer's opinion that the accused is "under the influence."
Arraignment or First Appearance:
Once the defendant has made bond, their first court appearance will usually be scheduled two to six week from the date of arrest. The purpose of the arraignment is to advise you of the nature of the charges, your rights, and the possible penalties you face. If you have an attorney, he will have already advised you of the penalties and have developed a strategy for protecting your rights so you don’t need to hear it again in a mass court gathering. Be advised that in many counties, this date serves as the defendant’s first chance to plea their case; this is particularly true for Nashville. Always be prepared to proceed with your case. It is wise to consult with an experienced DUI attorney well in advance of this scheduled court date in order to develop a defense strategy. For the cases that cannot be resolved on the first appearance, the Court will set a trial date in General Sessions Court.
General Sessions Court
This court has jurisdiction over most DUI cases. However, they cannot resolve felony DUI cases unless the felony is reduced to a misdemeanor. Cases are resolved in this Court by either a Preliminary hearing, Trial without a Jury, or Plea Agreement. A preliminary hearing requires the State to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense for which he or she is charged. Probable Cause means “probably guilty” or “more likely that not.” If probable cause is found, the charge will then be presented to the Grand Jury. A preliminary hearing is an excellent tool to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s case. It is the best means to set a case up for a jury trial.
Comprised of 13 people who meet in secret to determine if probable cause exists. They hear evidence only from the prosecutor’s witnesses, not the defendant or his or her lawyer. Due to the one side nature of the Grand Jury, most DUI cases are indicted with a “true bill.”
In Criminal Court, a defendant is presumed innocent and has the right to require the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before 12 people from the community. All defendants have the right to confront their accuser, compel the appearance of witnesses, and to remain silent if they choose not to testify. Prior to trial, defense counsel will have the opportunity to file motions (written documents) requesting that the Court take certain action such as exclude evidence or require the state to disclose information. Should a person be convicted at trial, they have a right to appeal the conviction, the sentence or both.
A. Pre-Trial Motions: There are several pretrial motions that can be filed to assert certain rights. A partial list is as follows:
Motion for Discovery: A motion filed to make the State produce certain documents such as police reports, calibration records for the breath testing machine, videotapes, audiotapes, or other documents. 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.
Motion to Produce and Preserve Evidence: Tennessee law requires the State to produce evidence upon which scientific tests were run and which are intended to be offered as evidence against you. This usually applies to blood tests in DUI cases. The State must produce evidence so that you may have independent tests run on the sample, if you chose. However, often a sample is lost or not kept. If this is the case, the State may also not be able to use its tests against you because it cannot be challenged.
Motion to Suppress: The officer must have a valid, explainable reason to pull over your vehicle. In order to stop a person and invade his or her privacy, the law requires that the officer have a particular reason amounting to suspicion of an illegally activity or traffic violation. It further requires the police to explain his reasons for the particular suspicions. Many traffic stops are made without such proper reason. If the Court rules that the stop was unjustified, then all evidence obtained as a result of that stop cannot be used against you at trial.
B. TRIAL (This can take place at either the General Sessions Level or Trial Court)
The trial is the proceeding familiar to most people. We have all seen trials by Perry Mason, Matlock and Law & Order. However, most of these television shows are very unrealistic as far as trial procedure and the rules of evidence. I have never personally seen a witness confess to murder under the intense cross-examination by any lawyer. However, good cross-examination skills can make the difference in the outcome of your trial. A trial has several distinct phases:
Opening Statement: The State and then your lawyer are allowed several minutes to address the jury or judge and tell them what he or she expects the evidence to show.
The State’s Case: The State then has to put on evidence that you committed a crime. Each witness is called and asked questions by the prosecutor. Then your attorney may cross-examine the witness. The State can ask redirect questions after your attorney is finished. Occasionally, the judge may ask questions of the witness, especially if jury trial is waived.
Half time: After the State puts on all its evidence, they rest. The judge considers whether they put on enough evidence of each charge. If not, the charge is dismissed.
Defense Evidence: The Defendant now has an opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence. The State has the right to ask your witnesses questions or call rebuttal witnesses to rebut the Defendant’s case. At the end of your evidence, you rest.
Closing Statements: Each side has the right to summarize what they think the evidence showed and how the evidence and law should be applied.
After the conclusion of the trial, the jury or court renders its decision. If a guilty verdict is returned, we proceed to sentencing. If a not guilty verdict is returned, the defendant is free to leave without punishment.
The second possibility on trial day is a plea. This is usually the result of plea-bargaining between the state and the defense. The defendant agrees to plea to a charge or charges, in the exchange of a lenient recommendation by the State on the issue of sentence. Many cases in the State of Tennessee, in fact most cases, are resolved this way. An important note: a judge is not bound by the pleas negotiations between the defense and the State. A judge will usually go along with the recommendation of the State 99 times out of a 100, but the judge is not required to. In some cases, the judge will allow the defendant to withdraw his/her guilty plea if the judge’s sentence far exceeds the recommendation by the State.
Sentencing: The court imposes a sentence after a conviction at trial. The possible penalties are outlined above. After the State has won at trial, the judge will ask the State if it has any recommendation. More likely than not, the Judge will follow the State’s recommendation. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to be proactive about a case by attending in or out-patient clinics, anger management classes, or other programs relevant to a case. The State’s recommendation will soften if the prosecutor sees that the defendant has taken steps to correct the problem on his/her own. 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.
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.