Arrested For DUI In Tennessee? How Could Changes To The Law Affect Your Case?

If you're under the legal drinking age and have recently been arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), you may be worried about the effect of a criminal conviction on your future plans -- from your ability to borrow federal student loans to being able to get a job after college or trade school. However, some recent changes to Tennessee's underage DUI laws could impact the sentence you receive if you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial. Read on to learn more about the recent repeal of a Tennessee law governing underage drinking and driving, as well as how this may affect your case.

What changes were recently made to Tennessee's underage DUI laws? 

While you may assume that there is no amount of alcohol that can legally be in your system if you're not yet old enough to buy it, the federal government has actually prescribed a maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) for those under the age of 21 -- 0.02 (rather than the 0.08 BAC reading required for someone over 21 to be deemed over the limit). Those who are pulled over for speeding or another traffic violation and blow only a 0.01 should not be subject to arrest. 

In an effort to maintain the spirit of this law (if not the letter of it), Tennessee's legislature passed another set of laws that raised the legal limit for those between 17 and 21 to 0.08 -- but which would require them to spend the same 48 hours in jail after arrest as all other DUI offenders. This had the practical effect of allowing those under 21 who were stopped but whose BAC was less than 0.08 to drive freely on their way, while assessing fairly severe sanctions to teens and even minors who were arrested with a BAC over 0.08. 

The federal government had a problem with Tennessee's unilateral raising of the underage drinking limit, deeming it a violation of the federal "zero tolerance" policy, even though Tennessee argued that the stiffer sentence for those whose BACs were 0.08 or higher helped balance out the increased limit. Amid threats to cut off millions of dollars in federal highway funding, Tennessee lawmakers reluctantly revoked this law during September 2016 to reinstate the prior policies and sentencing guidelines and maintain their eligibility for federal funding.

How could these changes impact your pending case? 

Because of the effect Tennessee's law could have on the state's revenue from federal sources, its repeal was made effective immediately -- which means if you haven't yet proceeded to sentencing, your case will be prosecuted under the original laws that criminalize driving with a BAC of 0.02 or higher if you're under age 21. Fortunately, this also means you won't be subject to the potential of two full days in jail with older and more hardened criminals.

The law affords judges with wide latitude when it comes to sentencing for misdemeanors -- so if you're able to demonstrate your remorse, can show you have good grades and a promising future, and don't have any other criminal history or a poor driving record that could indicate future trouble, it's likely you'll be able to enter into a diversion agreement that will expunge your conviction once you've successfully completed probation without getting into any other legal scuffles. With the assistance of your DUI attorney or public defender, you may even be able to enter into this type of agreement with the prosecutor relatively early in the case and offer it for the judge's approval, avoiding the expense and hassle of a trial.