Appeals court finds $250 DUI fine — used in financing TBI — unconstitutional

An appeals court has ruled unconstitutional a state law that requires every person convicted of DUI through a blood or breath test pay a fee that that helps fund the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, reports the Associated Press.

Tuesday’s ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals in Knoxville says the $250 fee violates due process and calls into question the trustworthiness of test results obtained by the bureau’s forensic scientists. State law requires the money to go to the bureau’s intoxicant testing fund.

The case was joined by more than 20 defendants who were charged with DUIs after they provided blood or breath samples, and each would have been subject to paying the $250 fee if convicted. The appellate court wrote that the lower court in the main defendant’s case was wrong in not dismissing the test results as evidence.

The decision said the fee system creates a monetary incentive for forensic scientists through continued employment, salaries, equipment and training.

“While we acknowledge that TBI forensic scientists could lose their jobs if they falsify test results and these falsifications are discovered, we also recognize that forensic scientists would most certainly lose their jobs if funding for their positions disappears, a result of which these forensic scientists are no doubt well aware,” the opinion states.

According to the appeals court’s decision, the defense had said it wasn’t arguing that the bureau actually falsified test results, but was contending that the fee violated due-process rights because it “created the appearance of impropriety and the potential for abuse based upon financial interest.”

After state lawmakers first instituted a $100 fee in 2005, they passed a bureau-backed proposal in 2010 to raise the fee to $250. The fees now bring in more than $3 million annually.

The full opinion is HERE.

The Times Free Press reports the decision put hundreds of pending DUI cases on hold “as state authorities scrambled to decode the order.”

“I can tell you this,” Chattanooga defense attorney Josh Weiss said, “I’m not going to be pleading anyone guilty to a DUI any time soon, especially if the court says it’s unconstitutional.”

Tuesday’s ruling stems from a local challenge by attorney Jerry Summers, who said his client, Rosemary Decosimo, shouldn’t have been convicted of DUI in March 2017 when the state’s top law enforcement agency was running a multimillion-dollar fee system for more than a decade that encouraged positive results in blood-alcohol tests.

… The TBI has made $22 million off thousands of DUI cases since the Legislature allowed the agency to begin collecting in 2005, according to the appeals court’s decision.

But the state only collects when it wins, Summers said, making the fee system biased, unconstitutional and a violation of a defendant’s right to a fair trial. With the vast majority of DUI cases being settled before trial, defendants who operate on a bootstrap legal budget rarely have the opportunity to challenge the state’s blood results, Summers said.

The appeals court sided with Summers: “We cannot ignore that the TBI receives a fee for each conviction where a blood or breath test is performed but does not receive a fee if a defendant’s charges are dismissed or reduced or if the defendant is acquitted.

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