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Tennessee Repeals New Underage DWI Law

Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons

July 1, 2016 was a highly anticipated day for many in Tennessee: for the very first time, wine was available for purchase in grocery stores.

Gliding in under the radar, perhaps because of all the hype surrounding the grocery store wine revolution, were many other changes to Tennessee’s alcohol-related criminal laws.

One such legislative update changed the way that Tennessee handled a small and categorically difficult class of individuals: underage DUI defendants. These are people ages 18 to 20, who are no longer juveniles, but who also are not allowed to consume alcohol at all—much less drive while under the influence. This offense is more commonly referred to as DWI—Driving While Impaired, which is distinguished from the offense of DUI that applies to those 21 years of age or older.

The Tennessee legislature decided to significantly increase the penalties for underage DWI offenders by treating them as any other DUI offender. Instead of just losing their driver’s license for a year with a $250 fine and other probation conditions such as volunteer community work, those ages 18-20 convicted of DWI would face a mandatory minimum of 48 hours in jail, a $350 fine, DUI school, and a variety of other possible penalties. Their records would also no longer be eligible for expungement. Those between 16 and 18 years of age would not be affected by the new law.

However, as of September 14, 2016, those reforms to the law have been repealed, and underage DWI offenders are again considered as a distinct category of defendants with less severe punishments. The new law, contrary to the expectations of the legislators, violated a Federal zero-tolerance policy for underage driving while intoxicated. Under the Federal law, those under age 21 cannot have a blood alcohol level of over 0.02% (the legal limit for ages 21 and older is 0.08%). Although Tennessee’s law increased the penalties for underage DWI offenders, it also raised the blood alcohol limit for such offenders to 0.08%.

Tennessee was left with two choices: repeal the new law, or lose $60 million of federal funding for road maintenance and improvement. Perhaps not surprisingly, Governor Haslam called an emergency legislative session, and the change to the law was repealed. Isn’t it interesting how money is related to our laws?

The author would like to thank his associate attorney, Anna Rickels, for her research and contributions to this article.

About the Author: Steven Oberman has been licensed in Tennessee since 1980, and successfully defended over 2,500 DUI defendants.  Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Steve served as Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. (NCDD) and currently serves as chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers DUI Committee.  Steve was the first lawyer in Tennessee to be Board Certified as a DUI Defense Specialist by the NCDD.

He is the author of DUI: The Crime & Consequences in Tennessee, updated annually since 1991 (Thomson-West), and co-author with Lawrence Taylor of the national treatise, Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen).  Steve has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee Law School since 1993 and has received a number of prestigious awards for his faculty contributions.  He is a popular international speaker, having spoken at legal seminars in 30 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries.

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Steve Oberman

Steve Oberman

Since graduating from the University of Tennessee Law School in 1980, Mr. Oberman has become established as a national authority on the intricacies of DUI defense law. Steve is a former Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, co-author of a national treatise ("Drunk Driving Defense" published by Aspen/Wolters-Kluwer), and author of "DUI: The Crime and Consequences in Tennessee" (published by Thomson-Reuters/West). He has taught thousands of lawyers, judges, and members of the general public about the intricacies of this crime. Steve was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach American Criminal Law and American Trial Advocacy at the University of Latvia School of Law in 2019; in 2023 taught for a semester as a visiting professor at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) Faculty of Law in Budapest, Hungary; and as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Law in 2024. Steve has also presented at a number of judicial conferences in the United States and Canada as well as for law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Czech Republic Police Academy. As a Tennessee DUI attorney, Mr. Oberman has successfully defended over two thousand clients charged with Driving Under the Influence of alcohol and/or drugs. In 2006, Mr. Oberman became the first DUI lawyer in Tennessee to be recognized by the National College for DUI Defense as a Board Certified Specialist in the area of DUI Defense law.

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