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Gibbons: State Panel Wants To ‘Streamline’ DUI Law

Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons says the state is getting closer to overhauling the state’s DUI statutes, but he doubts the first round of changes will add any new teeth to the laws.

Gibbons said down the line he and a committee of state and local officials may consider recommending changes in the law like mandatory rehab for people convicted of DUI. But he said it was too soon whether the group would float that plan with the Legislature next year.

“Right now, our DUI law is 58 pages long. That’s compared to an 18-page first-degree murder death penalty statute. So, it’s very complicated,” he told reporters Tuesday at a law enforcement conference in Nashville.

The priority, he said, is to “streamline” the current DUI laws to make them easier for defense lawyers, district attorneys and the public to understand.

That revision could surface as early as the 2013 legislative session, although Gibbons gave no promises the language would be ready by then. Any significant additions to the policy might not be ready for another year after that, Gibbons said.

The revisions are part of a multi-year public safety action plan Gibbons has spearheaded as chairman of the Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group. The group is made up of Department of Safety attorneys, representatives from the District Attorneys Generals Conference, the Governor’s Highway Safety Office and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

DUI enforcement is one of Gibbons’ priorities as commissioner. Gibbons, a former Memphis district attorney and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate, bragged to the Southeastern Colonel’s Conference in Nashville Tuesday about the state’s beefed up DUI enforcement since he took office.

According to the department, trooper arrests of DUI suspects are up 29 percent, or 800 arrests, from this time last year. By mid-August of 2011, troopers had made 2,757 arrests for impaired driving, compared to 3,557 the same time this year.

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Law Enforcement Repeats Holiday ‘No Refusal’ Enforcement

State troopers are using holidays to exercise new powers to demand that suspected drunk drivers give up a vial of their blood against their will.

State officials say they forced nine people who refused breath tests during Department of Safety holiday weekend crackdowns to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. A new law gives police the tools to obtain a warrant to require a blood test.

But officials also say they would not be surprised if the law’s constitutionality were to be tested in court.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone challenges it. Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable that the law will be upheld,” said Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons.

“Is any search warrant invasive? I guess you could argue that, but under our law there is a procedure to seek a search warrant. We have to persuade a judge that there is probable cause that a person is driving under the influence, and if that judge agrees, then we obtain a search warrant,” he told TNReport.

Drivers suspected of drunk driving can refuse to submit to a breath test. Rep. Curry Todd was recently indicted for refusing following his DUI arrest in 2011.

Refusal comes at a cost. Those drivers lose most of their driving rights for a year.

But on holiday weekends when the state lines up judges and nurses or other medical professionals to be onsite with troopers, the refusal option is rendered moot. The judges can issue search warrants on the spot, and the medical professionals can draw the blood.

One driver was forced to submit to a blood test over the Labor Day weekend in Sullivan County, state Safety Department officials say. Over July 4, the number was eight.

Not known is how many drivers submitted to a breath test without protest because they were aware of the new law.

The department declined to release the outcomes of those blood tests, saying the information would be considered evidence in pending criminal cases.

The no-refusal law won narrow approval in the state House of Representatives this year despite hesitance from lawmakers like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who at the time said, “It concerns a lot of people when the government holds people down and takes bodily fluids out. I think you saw that in the close vote today.”

Others in the Legislature say the law is a tool to keep streets safe from intoxicated drivers.

“You’re driving around like a cocked gun, and nothing good can ever come from that,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. “I do agree with the policy, and it’ll be up to some court or some ACLU attorney, I suppose, to decide if this is some invasion of privacy.”

Tennessee’s ACLU chapter says it is so far not engaged in any fights over the no-refusal policy.

David Raybin, a criminal defense lawyer in Nashville, says there’s nothing constitutionally suspect about requiring DUI suspects to fork over their blood.

”If they have probable cause to arrest you for a DUI, they have probable cause to take your blood,” he said. “There’s no constitutional problem with doing that because of the emergency of the situation because the alcohol content goes away so quickly.”

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No DNA Collected from DUI Suspects Under ‘No Refusal’ Law: State

The blood samples collected from suspected drunk drivers under a new “No Refusal” law are not added to a national DNA database used by prosecutors, according to Tennessee state public safety officials.

“Blood samples obtained by a search warrant from a suspected DUI offender are tested for blood alcohol content only,” Department of Safety Spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said via email. “Those blood samples are not used for any other purpose and are NOT placed in a DNA database.”

“There’s no DNA ever run on those,” said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “I can assure you that’s not the case.”

The state this summer began enforcing a new law that allows cops to seek a warrant to compel people accused of driving under the influence to involuntarily give up a blood sample if they refuse a Breathalyzer or blood test.

State troopers forced eight people to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July holiday weekend during the first test of the new law, DPS said.

A judge on-site issued warrants requiring the sobriety tests of the drivers, who had initially refused. Another 40 people stopped in Anderson, Bradley, Davidson, Maury and Warren counties submitted to the tests without a warrant. The results of those tests are not yet available.

State officials say the blood collected will not be used to bolster the national Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, a database to which Tennessee adds tens of thousands of DNA profiles each year in an attempt to help prosecutors levy charges against crime suspects.

Not least among the reasons is it would be unlawful to do so.

Officials can only collect and keep DNA information from convicted felons and people accused of committing or being a party to a “violent felony,” such as aggravated assault and carjacking. This year, lawmakers added that people charged with five additional crimes would also have to give up DNA samples, including various homicide and manslaughter charges.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in 2011 wanted to expand that list to all felonies, like large-scale theft and drug crimes and DUIs, but the measure went nowhere.

The state collected 14,586 DNA samples from arrestees and 13,778 samples from convicts in the year ended June 2011, according to the TBI. The TBI handles DNA evidence for the major crimes that make it into CODIS and is in charge of examining blood work to measure alcohol or toxicity of DUI suspects.

The statements from TBI and Safety spokespersons conflicted with that of Safety Department Commissioner Bill Gibbons. The TBI is independent of his department.

Gibbons, a former Memphis district attorney, told TNReport on July 17 that the state does retain a database of DNA records for people accused of driving under the influence. “The state does have DNA records on many individuals, and you can run those results, and it really helps in terms of investigating a particular case, and I again, I think it’s to the advantage of everybody,” Gibbons said. And when asked specifically if the state retained a database of DNA records of people accused of DUIs, he said, “Yes, but how long it’s retained, I don’t know the answer to that. But yes, there is a database, so to speak, of that.”

Howver, that’s not accurate, Donnals said later. “I think Commissioner Gibbons misunderstood your question, and I wanted to make sure you had the correct information,” she said via email later the day of the interview.