While a first offense DUI is a misdemeanor in the state of Tennessee, it can cost a convicted driver considerable money and time in penalties. It can also affect the offender's ability to get a job, go to school or apply for a loan, which can, in turn, hinder their ability to rent or buy a residence. And even as a first offense, a DUI can become a felony if certain circumstances are in place, such as serious injury or death caused by the driver's impairment. Knowing the law around drunk driving in Tennessee will help drivers avoid more severe consequences than they may already experience.
A driver faces their first DUI if they have had no prior convictions in the past 10 years. But a judge can take past DUI convictions into consideration when sentencing if they occurred within twenty years of the current offense.
DUI Laws in Tennessee
Tennessee law enforcement officers can arrest a person for driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs, alcohol or a combination of both by measuring the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in the driver's system or by witnessing the unsafe operation of a vehicle. Depending on the driver's age and what type of license they have, the BAC legal limit for a DUI arrest varies. A person suspected of impairment does not have to be actually driving for an arrest to occur. According to NOLO, if they are sitting in the driver's seat on a public road while impaired, that may be enough.
It is illegal to drive or be in "actual physical control" of a motor vehicle when the vehicle operator:
- Is in possession of a noncommercial license and has a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater.
- Is under 21 in possession of a noncommercial license and has a BAC of 0.02 percent or greater.
- Holds a commercial driver's license (CDL) and has a BAC of 0.04 percent or greater.
- Shows obvious impairment by intoxicants, including marijuana or other controlled substances alone or in combination with alcohol.
Read More: The Pros & Cons of a Standard DUI
First-Offense DUI and Penalties
According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, a first-offense DUI is a misdemeanor. A driver faces their first DUI if they have had no prior convictions in the past 10 years. But a judge can take past DUI convictions into consideration when sentencing if they occurred within twenty years of the current offense. A first DUI carries these penalties:
- $350 to $1,500 fine.
- From 48 hours to 11 months and 29 days of jail time. Drivers with a BAC of 0.20 percent or higher must serve at least seven consecutive days.
- License revocation of one year. The driver can apply for a restricted license to get to work, school or court during this time.
- Attendance in a substance abuse treatment program.
- Financial compensation for victims suffering person loss or physical injury.
A driver convicted of their first-time DUI must also pay attorney fees, SR-22 (or high-risk) insurance, towing charges and license reinstatement fees, all of which add up to about $5,000. A judge may also order the convicted driver to install an ignition interlock device (IID) at their own expense. The minimum cost for an IID for a year is $1,000.
Read More: How to Check Driver's License History
Enhanced DUI Charges and Felony DUI
A first offense misdemeanor can become a felony if there are special circumstances in play at the time of the traffic stop. A driver who causes injury to another person while impaired faces a Class D felony. This is known as vehicular assault and carries a prison sentence of two to 12 years, license revocation of one to five years (with no eligibility for a restricted license), and a fine of up to $5,000. If an impaired driver has a passenger under 18 with them at the time of the stop, they face additional penalties for child endangerment, including license revocation and from two to 20 years in prison, if the child passenger suffers a serious injury.
A driver who kills someone due to impairment can face a Class B felony for vehicular homicide. This charge carries penalties of eight to 30 years in prison, a fine of up to $25,000, and license revocation from three to 10 years, with no restricted license eligibility. If the vehicle operator has at least two prior DUI convictions, a prior vehicular assault or homicide conviction, or a prior DUI with a BAC of 0.20 percent or higher, they face a Class A felony charge. These penalties are some of the highest in the state and include up to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Read More: What Is Suspicion of DUI?
First-Offense Underage DUI
A driver under the age of 21 who is impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two faces either adult DUI penalties or those that are less severe. This depends on the specifics of the drunk driving incident, particularly on the amount of alcohol that was in their system at the time. An underage driver with a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater can receive the same consequences that an adult in their circumstance would.
According to Nolo, Tennessee has a separate statute for underage drivers who have a lower BAC of between 0.02 and 0.08 percent. This is known as driving while intoxicated, or DWI. Offenders between the ages of 16 to 20 will see a one-year license revocation, a $250 fine and may have to perform community service. Underage drivers with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher face slightly different penalties to those of a standard DUI.
Those ages 13 to 17 face license suspension until they reach 17 or for one year, whichever comes later. They may, however, apply for early withdrawal of the suspension after 90 days or apply for a restricted license.
First-Offense DUI and CDL Drivers
A person holding a commercial driver’s license (CDL) can not only lose their ability to drive, they can also lose their job, as they no longer have the ability to work. Unlike a driver with a noncommercial license, both state and federal DUI laws impact CDL holders. DMV.org states that a CDL driver who has a BAC of 0.04 percent or higher, shows impairment by a controlled substance while operating a vehicle, or refuses to take a chemical test is in violation of the state’s implied consent law.
A driver committing these violations, even when operating a noncommercial vehicle, may face penalties of a one-year license suspension for their first offense. This goes up to three years if the driver is arrested while transporting hazardous materials.
Legal Beagle: How to Know If a DUI Is on Your Record
First-Offense Implied Consent Violation
According to the state’s implied consent law, a driver gives consent to chemical testing the moment they get behind the wheel on Tennessee's roads. If a law enforcement officer has probable cause to suspect impairment in a driver and requests a breath or urine test, submission is mandatory. A driver will not face penalties for refusing to take a blood test, unless an officer has a warrant. The implied consent law does not apply to field sobriety tests.
Violating Tennessee's implied consent law results in a one-year license revocation for a first offense. If a victim has suffered injuries as the result of a driver’s impairment, the penalty goes up to two years, and if the driver's impairment causes death to another person, they will lose their license for three years.
Read More: How to Get a DUI Removed From Your Driving Record
- Tennessee Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security: DUI Offenses
- NOLO: Tennessee’s Underage DUI Laws and Penalties
- DMV.org: Suspended CDL in Tennessee
- NOLO: Tennessee Drunk Driving Laws and Penalties
- Legal Beagle: Tennessee DUI Laws, Fines & Penalties
- Legal Beagle: The Pros & Cons of a Standard DUI
- Legal Beagle: How to Check Driver's License History
- Legal Beagle: What Is Suspicion of DUI?
- Legal Beagle: What Will My Probation Officer Do If I Fail an Alcohol Test?
- Legal Beagle: How to Get a DUI Removed From Your Driving Record
- Legal Beagle: How to Know If a DUI Is on Your Record
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.