In a Hamilton County case, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that a state law giving the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation a $250 fee in DUI convictions is unconstitutional.
The appeals court said the law "violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and article I, section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution. We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion."
A number of local attorneys had filed appeals of DUI cases based on contentions that the arrangement gave the TBI an incentive to get convictions and put their testing results in doubt.
The case that brought the ruling was filed by attorneys Jerry Summers, Ben McGowan and Marya Schalk.
Hamilton County's three Criminal Court judges had sat "en banc" and put down a ruling that upheld the DUI convictions.
The appeals court ruling overturns that decision and sends the cases back to Hamilton County Criminal Court.
The ruling also is a setback for the TBI's budget. Director Mark Gwyn had tested that the agency was facing a number of cutbacks prior to the implementation of the fee.
He also said without the fee and full staffing that there would be a lengthy delay for localities in getting the results from blood alcohol tests.
The income from the fee has been increasing and now is above $3 million per year.
The appeals court said in the 28-page ruling, "Based on the record before us, the TBI, and specifically the forensic science division, is dependent on these BADT fees. Given the upward trend in BADT collections for each successive year, we believe that the TBI will become increasingly reliant on these fees in the future, which only serves to heighten the potential for bias among TBI forensic scientists.
"The fee system in Code section 55-10-413(f) also closely resembles cases in which expert witnesses or attorneys have been disqualified for conflicts of interest."
The ruling said, "We conclude that independent testing is not an adequate safeguard because it impermissibly shifts the burden of proof from the State to the defense. Because the State has the duty to pursue truth and justice, it has the obligation to provide an accurate, unbiased BAC result, not a result that is deemed correct until disproved by the defendant. 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 BAC result in order to do what an unbiased TBI forensic scientist should have done from the beginning. Lastly, because so many DUI cases end in guilty pleas, rather than trials, we conclude that neither a jury instruction nor vigorous cross-examination of TBI forensic scientists corrects the fact that Code section 55-10-413(f) violates due process. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred in failing to suppress the test results in this case."