For eight years, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has collected a $250 fee for blood and breath tests from individuals convicted of drunk driving. In a move that could change how DUI cases in Tennessee are prosecuted, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Knoxville recently struck down this practice as unconstitutional. The appeals court ruled, “Because the fee system at issue in this case calls into question the trustworthiness of the TBI forensic scientists’ test results, it violates due process.”
A Conflict of Interest
The decision originated from a contested DUI case in Chattanooga in which a defendant sought to suppress her blood test results. Her case, along with 20 similar cases, argued the fee system prevented them from obtaining a fair trial.
Because a section of the Tennessee Code ensures the $250 fee be deposited directly into the TBI’s intoxicant testing fund and allocated “exclusively for the use of the TBI,” the opinion determined each DUI conviction obtained using a blood or breath test presents a conflict of interest. The court asserts the fees collected from the Blood Alcohol or Drug Concentration Test (BADT) provide the TBI with a financial incentive to secure convictions. The appeals court concluded this system, as it is currently implemented, introduces doubt and calls into question the validity of the testing results.
“Any time you have a system that incentivizes a certain result, it jeopardizes the reliability of the forensic information,” said Marcos Garza, a Knoxville-based attorney.
First introduced by the state legislature in 2005, the original fee was $100 per test. It was bumped to $250 in 2010, resulting in significant deposits into the intoxicant fund. In recent years, the fees have netted nearly $3 million annually for the TBI.
A Tough Challenge for Prosecutors
The decision could impact both current cases and past DUI convictions. There are two primary ways to determine intoxication levels in potential drunk drivers: officers can collect evidence showing a person is clearly impaired by conducting field sobriety tests or through blood or breath analysis to measure a person’s BAC. Ultimately, the court decision could give defendants a basis to have test results suppressed, and allow sentenced offenders to challenge their convictions.
As budgets continue to shrink, many state and local lawmakers have increasingly considered fees to offset costs, but the practice has critics. The Tennessee decision is being appealed and could eventually be overruled by the State Supreme Court. Until a final ruling is handed down, a lot of DUI cases in Tennessee have stalled out.