The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) can continue to collect $250 fees from convicted drunk drivers, according to a Thursday ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court
The fees cover the costs of running blood alcohol tests. The TBI only collected the fees if a driver was convicted of driving under the influence (DUI).
Attorneys for Chattanooga resident Rosemary L. Decosimo argued that the ”scheme provides TBI forensic scientists with a personal and institutional financial incentive to produce blood alcohol test results that secure convictions, which, in turn, increases fees and funding for the TBI,” according to court papers.
The suit came in 2012 after Decosimo was arrested that August for DUI. She provided a blood sample and later sued to suppress the evidence the results from her case because the fee system ”violates the right to due process and a fair trial.” The case challenged the constitutionality of the TBI’s testing fee.
The fees produced $1.6 million for the TBI from 2009 to 2012, according to court documents. From 2005 to 2016, the TBI collected more than $22 million from these fees, according to documents.
In 2014, then-TBI director Mark Gwyn said his agency faced deep cuts in 2008, forcing the agency to either start charging law enforcement for testing or to close some of its labs. He said the TBI used the testing fees for equipment and training.
Last year, Criminal Appeals Court in Knoxville ruled against the fee-collection scheme
. It said TBI forensic scientists had a financial interest in securing convictions based on blood tests.
“…because the collection of the…fees affects their continued employment and salary, which gives them an incentive to find that defendants’ blood alcohol content is 0.08 percent or higher,” reads the opinion.
But the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled that decision. TBI forensic scientists are salaried employees, reads the court’s opinion filed Thursday, and not swayed by the fees.
“Their compensation is not at all dependent on the results of blood alcohol tests or whether a particular defendant is or is not convicted, nor do their salaries decrease or increase based on the aggregate amount of…(testing) fees imposed or collected,” reads the opinion. “These facts alone illustrate that TBI forensic scientists do not have a personal, direct, substantial pecuniary interest in producing a particular test result.”
Further, according to the ruling, the scientists have no say over the imposition or the collection of the fees, no control over when cases are resolved, and that a scientist’s job security depends on accurate reporting, not on financial incentives.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said he was “pleased with the outcome.” It upholds Tennessee law and “removes any uncertainty over past DUI convictions.” The case could have affected thousands of prior DUI cases here.
“In addition, the court pointed out that any financial incentive created by the law is far too remote to constitute a possible temptation for TBI forensic agents to falsify test results and generate fees,” Slatery said in a statement.