Tennessee DUI Laws, Fines & Penalties

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Drivers in Tennessee suspected of impaired driving after consuming alcohol or drugs, or a combination of both, face severe penalties if convicted of a driving under the influence (DUI) charge – months or years of jail time, thousands of dollars in fines and license revocation. Knowing the law as it pertains to drunk driving in this state increases a driver's chances of avoiding even more severe consequences than they may already encounter.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security considers a DUI to be a driver’s first offense if they’ve had no prior convictions within the last 10 years. However, the court can consider DUI convictions up to 20 years prior.

BAC and DUI in the State of Tennessee

Tennessee follows "per se" DUI laws, which apply to the level of alcohol in a driver’s blood. However, if law enforcement suspects a driver’s impairment by witnessing the dangerous operation of the motor vehicle, a DUI arrest can also take place without immediate knowledge of a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level.

It is against the law for a driver in Tennessee to drive or otherwise be in "actual physical control" of a vehicle under these conditions, according to NOLO.

  • The driver has a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher.
  • The driver is impaired by any intoxicant, including marijuana or another controlled substance.
  • The driver carries a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and has a BAC of 0.04 percent or higher.
  • The driver is under 21 and has a BAC of 0.02 percent or higher.

Read More:​ What Is Suspicion of DUI?

First-Offense DUI and Penalties

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security considers a DUI to be a driver’s first offense if they’ve had no prior convictions within the last 10 years. However, the court can consider DUI convictions up to 20 years prior. A first offense DUI is a misdemeanor that carries these penalties:

  • Between 48 hours to 11 months and 29 days of jail time (offenders with a 0.20 BAC or greater must serve a minimum of seven consecutive days).
  • A one-year license revocation with eligibility for a restricted license.
  • Participation in a substance abuse program.
  • Restitution to victims suffering loss or physical injury.
  • Fine of $350 to $1,500.

A first-time offender must pay additional costs and fees for an attorney, vehicle towing, SR-22 (high risk) insurance, and license reinstatement fees, which can add up to, or exceed, $5,000. The court may request that the offender install an ignition interlock device (IID) at their expense – minimum IID fees for the first year could be over $1,000.

Second-Offense DUI and Penalties

The state considers a DUI to be a driver’s second offense if they’ve had one prior conviction within the last 10 years. However, the court can consider DUI convictions up to 20 years prior. A second offense DUI is a misdemeanor that carries these penalties:

  • Between 45 days to 11 months and 29 days in jail, with possible work release.
  • Two-year license revocation, with eligibility for a restricted license.
  • Participation in a substance abuse treatment program.
  • Restitution to victims suffering loss or physical injury.
  • Mandatory fine of $600 to $3,500.
  • Probation with possible alcohol monitoring via an ankle bracelet.
  • Possible vehicle seizure or forfeiture.
  • Possible highway clean-up duty.

An offender must pay additional costs and fees for an attorney, vehicle towing, SR-22 (high risk) insurance and license reinstatement fees. The court may request that the offender install an IID at their expense. If the driver has had two DUIs within five years, they must have the device installed for at least six months.

Third-Offense DUI and Penalties

The state considers a DUI to be a driver’s third offense if they’ve had two prior convictions within the last 10 years. However, the court can consider DUI convictions up to 20 years prior. A third DUI offense is a misdemeanor that carries these penalties:

  • Between 120 days to 11 months and 29 days in jail, with possible work release.
  • Two-year license revocation, with eligibility for a restricted license.
  • Participation in a substance abuse treatment program.
  • Restitution to victims suffering loss or physical injury.
  • Mandatory fine of $1,000 to $10,000.
  • Possible vehicle seizure or forfeiture.
  • Probation with possible alcohol monitoring via an ankle bracelet.

If convicted, an offender must pay additional costs and fees for an attorney, towing, SR-22 (high risk) insurance and license reinstatement fees. The court may request that the offender install an IID at their expense. If the driver has had two DUIs within five years, they must have the device installed for at least six months.

Fourth-Offense DUI and Penalties

A fourth offense DUI is a Class E felony, which carries greater penalties, according to Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers. They are:

  • One year jail sentence, with at least 150 consecutive days served.
  • Eight-year license revocation, with eligibility for a restricted license.
  • Restitution to victims suffering loss or physical injury.
  • Mandatory fine between $3,000 and $15,000.
  • Possible vehicle seizure or forfeiture.

An offender must pay additional costs and fees for an attorney, towing, SR-22 (high risk) insurance and license reinstatement fees. The court may request that the offender install an IID at their expense. If the driver has two DUIs within five years, they must have the device installed for at least six months.

Vehicular Assault and Child Endangerment

A misdemeanor DUI can become a Class D felony in Tennessee if there is injury to another person as a result of the driver operating a vehicle while impaired. A vehicular assault charge carries penalties, including:

  • Two to 12 years of incarceration.
  • From one to five years of license revocation with no restricted license eligibility.
  • Maximum $5,000 fine.

An impaired driver with a passenger under 18 also faces felony charges, even if it is their first offense. Penalties include:

  • Two to 20 years in prison if the victim suffers a serious injury (Class D felony).
  • Eight to 30 years in prison if the victim dies (Class B felony).
  • License revocation.

Vehicular Homicide Penalties

Vehicular homicide is a Class B felony punishable by:

  • Eight to 30 years in prison.
  • A maximum fine of $25,000.
  • Three to 10 years of license revocation with no restricted license eligibility.

A driver who kills a person while operating a vehicle impaired and who has a minimum of two prior DUIs, a prior vehicular assault or homicide, or a prior DUI with a BAC level of 0.20 percent or higher faces Class A felony charges. Penalties include:

  • Between 15 to 60 years in prison.
  • Maximum fine of $50,000.

Underage DUI in Tennessee

An underage driver impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of both can face standard DUI penalties or those that are less severe. This depends on how the prosecutor chooses to charge the underage offender and the specific circumstances of the traffic stop itself.

When convicted of DUI with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher, the underage driver faces consequences that are the same as those for an adult driver. However, the state also has a statute for convicting drivers under 21 who have a BAC of between 0.02 and 0.08 percent. This is known as driving while impaired, or DWI.

Underage DWI and Penalties

DWI charges for offenders ages 16 to 20 under the 0.08 BAC level carry penalties of one-year license revocation, a $250 fine and possible community service. Underage DWI offenses for those with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher carry additional penalties:

  • First offense (ages 13 to 17): A license suspension of one year or until the offender reaches 17, whichever is longer. After 90 days, the driver may apply for early withdrawal of their license suspension. The court may also allow a restricted license for first offenders.
  • Second offense (ages 13 to 17): A license suspension of two years or until the offender reaches 18, whichever is longer. After one year, the driver may apply for early withdrawal of their license suspension. The court may also allow the driver to get a restricted license.

A charge of Underage Possession of Alcohol for offenders ages 18 to 21 carries these penalties:

  • First offense (ages 18 to 21): A license suspension of one year or until the offender reaches 17, whichever is later. After 90 days, the driver may apply for early withdrawal of their license suspension. The court may also allow a restricted license for first offenders.
  • Second offense (ages 18 to 21): A license suspension of two years or until the offender reaches 18, whichever is later. After one year, the driver may apply for early withdrawal of their license suspension. The court may also allow the driver to get a restricted license.

Read More​: How to Know If a DUI Is on Your Record

Implied Consent Violation

In Tennessee, the implied consent laws state that anyone who operates a vehicle on the state's roads has automatically given consent to a chemical test through breath or urine samples. Submitting to this test is mandatory if a police officer has probable cause to suspect impairment. The law does not apply to field sobriety tests or blood tests. Even if an officer requests a blood test, the driver does not face penalties for refusal unless there is a warrant or other pressing circumstances.

The penalties for violating the implied consent law are:

  • First offense: One-year driver’s license revocation.
  • Second offense: Two-year driver’s license revocation.
  • If impairment caused bodily injury to a victim: Two-year license revocation.
  • If impairment caused death of a victim: Five-year license revocation.

Read More:​ What Will My Probation Officer Do If I Fail an Alcohol Test?

Open Container Law in Tennessee

The state defines an alcoholic beverage as one that contains any amount of alcohol. Its open container law prohibits a vehicle operator from consuming or possessing alcohol in a container that has a broken seal or is otherwise open. In Tennessee, the restrictions apply only to the driver and only in cars with a running engine. Storage of an open container in a closed glove compartment, trunk or another area inaccessible to the driver is the only legal way to transport it.

A violation of Tennessee's open container law is a Class C misdemeanor. It carries no jail time, and there is no revocation of the driver’s license, but it does carry these penalties:

  • Maximum $100 fine.
  • Citation in lieu of detainment; driver may be arrested if citation is refused.

CDL Drivers and DUI Penalties

Drivers holding commercial driver licenses (CDLs) face harsh penalties for impaired driving under both state and federal laws. According to DMV.org, a DUI charge can occur if the CDL driver:

  • Has a BAC of 0.04 percent or higher.
  • Is under the influence of a controlled substance while operating a vehicle.
  • Refused a chemical or breath test under the state’s implied consent law.

A CDL driver who commits any of these violations, even when driving a noncommercial vehicle, can see their license suspended for one year for a first offense (three years if transporting hazardous materials). This suspension can stretch to a lifetime for a second violation, with reinstatement possible after 10 years.