If drivers have a blood alcohol level higher than .08, they are considered driving under the influence in Tennessee.
If a driver has a blood alcohol level higher than .15 or refuses to take a test to check his or her blood-alcohol level, there can be an increase to the punishment.Under Tennessee law, someone caught driving under the influence is considered a “DUI offender” and will have to pay $350 to $1,500, as well as spend 48 hours to 11 months and 29 days in jail. In addition, the offender must complete 24 hours of litter pickup and will lose driving privileges for one year. And, that is only after the first DUI.
The next time it happens, if a judge declares a drunk driver a “danger to the community,” the driver can be held in jail without bail.
“If you have a juvenile in the car, which means anyone under the age of 18, an additional 30 days in jail will be placed on top of the first jail sentence,” said Mike Still, a 15-year patrol officer with the Bristol, Tennessee Police Department.
After the first offense, offenders can apply for a restricted driver's license, which allows them to drive only from their home to work or school and back. Where they can drive must be approved by a judge, and a Tennessee resident with a DUI in Tennessee can be ordered to install an in-car-breathalyzer, known as the “ignition interlock device,” in his or her car. The car will only start if the driver breathes into the device and it finds he or she is within the legal driving limit.
Getting the ignition interlock device is expensive, and many who have had a second DUI do not get it.
“People around here can’t afford it, so we don’t see too much of it,” said Criminal Court Judge Lynn W. Brown, who handles DUI cases in Tennessee's 1st Judicial District. “Driving is a privilege for them, so the cost of getting it falls on them.”
If a driver wanting a restricted license cannot afford an ignition interlock device, the driver cannot get a license at all. Under Tennessee law, the device must be retested once a month.
“[Drivers] are responsible for having it tested and making sure it stays within calibration,” said Still. “The closest folks that do that are in Knoxville. You'd have to go to Knoxville to get it installed, and once a month to get it checked. This all comes out of their pocket.
According to Mele Rose, director of the Bristol City Victim & Wellness Program, drivers who get DUIs fall into categories of how they respond.
“You will sometimes see a lot of people get a DUI for the first time, pay the court costs, go through the motions and learn their lesson,” said Rose. “And you will sometimes see people that get a DUI, continue to drive with a restricted or suspended license or no license at all, and never learn anything from it.”
After a DUI offender loses a license, it is not uncommon to see the driver get back on the road, whether to keep a job to make payments, or to meet whatever responsibility they may have.
“I think there are a lot of drivers out there with a revoked license, whether that be because of offenses or other
reasons,” said Capt. Michael Ubertaccio of the Morristown Police Department. “We come into contact with that a lot.”
An offender has to make payments for court costs and fines no matter what situation. Even if drivers are convicted of a crime not related to a DUI, they can still lose their license if they fail to pay fines or court fees.
"I really lucked out because it could have potentially messed up any sort of career I could have."
– Joshua, 21
Joshua, a student who asked that his last name not be used, said he was charged with DUI in 2010 in North Carolina.
“It was costly," he said. "I was in and out of court and missing school because of it." But he knows it could have been worse.
"Taking time out for court, working more to pay for an attorney and just the fact that I have that on my record is the worst part of it all. I really lucked out because it could have potentially messed up any sort of career I could have.”
The number of DUI arrests across Tennessee has increased in recent years, but not by much. The number of first-time DUI convictions posted to a driver's record rose 3.6 percent from the 2008-2009 to the 2009-2010 fiscal year; for the 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 fiscal year, the increase was 1.1 percent.
The 2008-2009 fiscal year saw 13,605 DUI convictions for first-time offenders, while 2009-2010 had 14,111 convictions and 2010-2011 had 14,278 convictions.
“The number of DUIs in Bristol has declined – but I'm not sure that's a nationwide trend,” said Still.
In the past, Bristol police reported many DUI incidents downtown, but controlling these locations has helped control the DUI situation.
“We've had bars that we've had issues with that have shut down," Still said. "We're pretty aggressive here in Bristol.”
Despite the consequences of the misdemeanor, drivers charged with DUI can get their lives back on track.
“I have known people who have recovered from this,” said Still. “For some people, going to jail is not a big deal. It's something that does not affect them. It all depends on the person, but you can recover from it.”