A law that gives the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation $250 for each DUI conviction obtained using a blood or breath test is unconstitutional, an appeals court ruled this week, in a decision that could have a widespread impact on drunk driving cases across the state.
The decision from the Court of Criminal Appeals at Knoxville involved the DUI case of a woman who argued her blood test should be suppressed because the fee system violated her right to a fair trial and gave the TBI a financial motivation to get convictions.
Her case, from Chattanooga, was consolidated with more than 20 similar cases of defendants who gave blood or breath samples to authorities.
"It's not the test itself, and it's not the $250 dollars. It's the facet that its going directly to the TBI only in cases where the defendant is convicted," attorney Steve Oberman said.
A section of the Tennessee Code requires the $250 fee to be deposited into the TBI’s toxicology unit intoxicant testing fund. The fee is paid as part of a defendant's court costs if there is a conviction for use by the TBI for agency operational costs.
The fee isn't charged when a case is dismissed or a not guilty verdict is returned.
"Had the fee been paid into the general fund of Tennessee and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation then requested money from the general fund, then everything would have been fine," Oberman said.
Oberman said there are two ways prosecutors can prove someone drives under the influence.
The first is when there is visible, clear behavior indicating that a person is impaired. Field sobriety tests help demonstrate this, but those tests are not required.
Oberman said the other way prosecutors prove their case is by showing the driver has a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent.
"In the case where the behavior is fairly normal, the field sobriety test have been refused but there is a blood test or a breath test, this case says that the results of the chemical tests are not admissible, and if that happens then the state is left with very little proof upon which to base their case," Oberman said.
A spokesperson for the TBI told 10News the agency is "still in the process of reviewing the decision," and that the TBI is "in conversations with our counterparts with the Attorney General's office to review options that are available in light of this recent ruling."
The appeals court's decision can potentially be overruled by the state supreme court, though Oberman said a quicker solution would be to amend state law so that money from the fee is not directed to the TBI.
The Commercial Appeal contributed to this report.