A landmark decision came from the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals on Tuesday with the opinion that Tennessee’s DUI conviction fee system is unconstitutional. The fee system awards $250 to the Bureau of Investigation for every successful DUI conviction.
The appeals court wrote in their statement, “We cannot ignore that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) receives a fee for each conviction where a blood or breath test is preformed but does not receive a fee if a defendant’s charges are dismissed or reduced or if the defendant is acquitted.” The court concluded that the fee system violates a defendant’s rights to a fair trial in cases that use blood or breath tests.
Chattanooga Attorney Jerry Summers and his client Rosemary Decosimo challenged the court in Decosimo’s DUI case. Decosimo was arrested for DUI in 2012 and pleaded guilty in 2017. Summers argued that the TBI had an incentive to produce positive test results. The TBI refuted a conflict of interest, as did prosecutors who rely on blood and breath test evidence during most DUI cases.
Fees for blood and breath tests began in 2005, when the legislature introduced a $100 fee. The fee increased to $250 in 2010 after a proposal from the TBI. The TBI collects approximately $3 million annually from the fee.
After the challenge from Summers, the judges agreed in a joint decision that the fees did form a “fee-dependent system” but stated that the blood and breath tests for DUI cases should not be suppressed.
Consequently, Summers appealed the decision, arguing that a high proportion of people plead guilty to their DUI charge because they don’t have sufficient resources to get their blood independently tested. According to Summers, this violates the right to a fair trial and creates due process concerns.
The appeals court did agree with Summers on this issue: “Under the scenario suggested by the state, the defendant is forced to obtain an independent test, to pay for an attorney to defend him, and to hire an expensive expert to challenge the [blood alcohol content] result in order to do what an unbiased TBI forensic scientist should have done from the beginning.”
It’s not clear if this ruling, which will influence many Tennessee DUI cases, will be upheld. Prosecutors could still appeal the ruling and bring the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court.