Tennessee’s DUI Laws and Conviction Penalties

The consequences of a Misdemeanor and Felony DUI offense in Tennessee.

Tennessee, like all states, prohibits driving while under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol. But what is the legal definition of "driving under the influence" and what are the consequences of a DUI conviction?

Tennessee statutes specifically define what it means to be driving under the influence and provide the possible penalties for DUI convictions. This article explains the relevant definitions in layman's terms and summarizes the penalties for a first, second, and third DUI conviction in Tennessee.

Tennessee's DUI Laws

In order to prove a DUI charge in court, prosecutors generally must show the defendant was:

  • driving or in physical control of a motor vehicle, and
  • under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

However, these two "elements" require a bit more explanation.

How Tennessee's DUI Laws Define "Driving" or Being in "Physical Control" of a Vehicle

Tennessee's DUI law specifically prohibits any impaired person to drive or be in physical control of any automobile. Most DUI offenses involve clear movement of the vehicle (or an accident), so it's a given that the suspect was driving.

However, in Tennessee, a person can be convicted of a DUI without actually putting a vehicle in motion. "Physical control" requires only that the person have the present ability to direct the vehicle's operation and movement. Relevant factors for determining physical control generally include where the person was sitting, where the keys were located, and whether the person manipulated any of the electrical or mechanical components of the vehicle.

How Tennessee's DUI Laws Define "Under the Influence"

Under Tennessee's DUI laws, a DUI charge can be based on an unlawful blood alcohol concentration (BAC) (often called a "per se" DUI charge) or actual drug or alcohol impairment.

Tennessee's Per Se DUI Law

A driver who has a BAC of .08% is considered to be per se under the influence. To get a per se DUI conviction, a prosecutor doesn't need to prove actual impairment—a BAC that's over the limit is enough.

Tennessee DUI Charges Based on Actual Impairment

Tennessee prohibits drivers from being under the influence of any intoxicant, marijuana, controlled substance, controlled substance analog, drug, substance affecting the central nervous system, or any combination thereof. And holding a prescription for an impairing substance is not a defense to an impaired driving charge.

Under Tennessee law, a driver is considered to be under the influence if the substance impairs his or her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle by depriving him or her of the clearness of mind and control of that he or she would otherwise possess.

Penalties for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd DUI Conviction in Tennessee

The range of penalties for drivers convicted of a DUI is set by statute and varies based primarily on how many prior DUI convictions the driver has. DUI convictions that occurred in the last ten years are counted as priors.

Jail Time and Fines for Misdemeanor Tennessee DUI Convictions

First, second, and third DUIs are generally misdemeanors. All DUI convictions result in fines and jail time.

1st Offense

2nd Offense

3rd Offense


48 hours to 11 months and 29 days

45 days to 11 months and 29 days

120 days to 11 months and 29 days


$350 to $1,500

$600 to $3,500

$1,100 to $10,000

Tennessee DUI Probation

Instead of ordering the maximum jail term, judges will generally place the offender on probation for at least one year. Probation can include requirements such as highway cleanup or other community service, random testing, and remote sobriety monitoring.

Prior to beginning probation, offenders are generally required to serve the minimum jail period. For first-offense DUIs, the minimum jail sentence can be served by instead completing 400 hours of community service. For a second and third offense, the minimum jail term can be reduced to 25 and 65 days after the offender completes a clinical substance abuse assessment.

Substance Abuse Treatment for Tennessee DUI Offenders

Following a DUI conviction, the offender will be required to complete a substance abuse evaluation. The judge will review the evaluation and recommendations and can order the offender to complete a treatment program. Offenders with prior DUI convictions are required to complete some sort of rehabilitation program as part of probation.

Time served in residential treatment or intensive outpatient treatment can count towards the minimum jail sentence.

Aggravating Factors That Can Increase Tennessee DUI Penalties

Certain factors, such as high BAC or minor passengers, can lead to increased DUI penalties in Tennessee.

Tennessee's DUI Enhancement for Child Passengers

An impaired driver who was transporting a passenger under the age of 18 will face increased penalties. Having a minor passenger will add a mandatory 30 days in jail and $1,000 in fines to the existing DUI sentence.

Tennessee's DUI Enhancement for High Blood Alcohol Levels

A driver who had a BAC of .20% or more will face a minimum of seven days in jail for a first-offense DUI conviction.

Tennessee's Felony DUI Penalties

In Tennessee, a fourth DUI conviction is a class E felony. A conviction carries 150 days to six years in prison and $3,000 to $15,000 in fines. The driver's license will also be revoked for eight years. Subsequent offenses will be considered felonies, with increased penalties.

License-Related Penalties for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd DUI in Tennessee

A DUI arrest will often lead to license-related penalties. These penalties vary based on the driver's cooperation and the number of prior DUI offenses.

License-related penalties can result from a DUI arrest and/or conviction.

Tennessee's Implied Consent Law

During a DUI investigation, the officer will generally request the driver to submit to a breath, blood, or urine test. Drivers who unlawfully refuse to complete the test face license suspension.

License Suspension for Chemical Test Refusal in Tennessee

When a driver refuses a lawful test request, the officer will submit a report to the court for review. If the court affirms the refusal report, it will suspend the driver's license for one year. A driver who has a prior DUI conviction or refusal within the last ten years will be suspended for two years.

The court can order that the refusal suspension run consecutively or concurrently with the conviction suspension (discussed below) depending on the offender's recent driving record.

License Suspension for DUI Convictions in Tennessee

All DUI convictions result in license suspension. At sentencing, the court will suspend the driver's license for:

  • one year for a first-offense DUI
  • two years for a second-offense DUI, and
  • six years for a third or subsequent DUI conviction.

Restricted License Options for Tennessee DUI Offenders

Suspended drivers can request restricted driving privileges from the court during the suspension period. A restricted license can be used to drive during the suspension period but is subject to court-ordered restrictions. Generally, the license can only be used to drive to and from work and school and only if the vehicle is equipped with an ignition interlock device (IID).

Tennessee's Underage DUI Law

Underage drivers are prohibited from driving after consuming any amount of alcohol. A driver who's under the age of 21 and is caught operating a vehicle with a BAC of .02% but less than .08% can be convicted of underage drinking and driving (UDD).

A UDD violation is a misdemeanor and carries a $250 fine and community service. The driver's license will also be suspended for one year, but a restricted license may be available.

An underage driver with a BAC of at least .08% or who is "under the influence" as defined above can instead be charged with a standard DUI.

Consult with a Tennessee DUI Attorney

If you've been arrested for driving under the influence in Tennessee, it's a good idea to talk to a DUI lawyer. DUI law is complicated, and the facts of each case are different. A qualified DUI attorney can tell you how the law applies to your case and help you decide on the best course of action.

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