Legal Info

Driving Responsibilities

What Happens During a Traffic Stop?

Though everyone appreciates all the hard work police officers do to keep us safe, it can be understandably nerve-racking when their jobs come into close contact with you. Though the issue may only be a minor traffic violation, it’s important to understand what goes on during a traffic stop and what your legal rights and obligations are.

How should I act?

The key to dealing with the police in any situation is to be respectful. Remember,police officers are normal people and behaving rudely or aggressively will likely only make a bad situation much worse. Be polite and avoid developing an attitude, that alone can help ease the tension and speed the process along.

I’ve been pulled over, what should I do?

If you’ve been pulled over make sure to stop your car as far out of the lane of traffic as possible. Stay inside your vehicle and keep your hands in view at all times. Police officers have obvious reasons to worry if you start acting jumpy.

You’ll likely be asked to provide identification and insurance information, do so promptly and keep calm, no reason to start acting guilty if you’ve done nothing wrong. If you’ve committed a relatively minor infraction the officer may inform you of this and write a citation. Don’t argue, this is not the time or place for that. If the citation has been issued then the incident is over and you can proceed on your way.

Search based on probable cause

If you were pulled over for a simple traffic violation and the officer noticed something illegal while you were stopped they may have probable cause to search your vehicle and possibly even arrest you. If the officer does have sufficient probable cause, they are allowed to search the entire vehicle, including the trunk and any bags inside the vehicle. The police are also allowed to search the vehicle if they have reason to believe you are armed and dangerous. You should understand that this might serve as a basis to discover other potentially incriminating evidence.

Search based on consent

If you are pulled over and the officer is suspicious about possible illegal activity but does not yet have sufficient evidence to conduct a search based on probable cause, they may simply ask you if they can search your vehicle. You are well within your rights to refuse. Be respectful, but you are absolutely allowed to say no.

If you think you want to allow the officer to search your vehicle, be very careful before you give the officer the go ahead. If you consent to a police search of your person, car, bags or anything else, you have given up your right to argue that the search was illegal. Giving consent waives your Fourth Ame ndment rights regarding anything found in that search. No take backs allowed.


Tennessee’s driver’s license points system was developed as a means of keeping track of unsafe drivers. The number of points on an individual’s Tennessee driver’s record is monitored by the Driver Improvement Section of the Tennessee Department of Safety. We’ll discuss quickly how the juvenile points system works and then move on to the more severe adults point system.

General info

A conviction for a traffic violation in Tennessee can add between 1 and 9 points to your driving record. Most speeding tickets (25 mph over the limit or less)and right-of-way violations result in between 1 and 4 points on your record.Major traffic offenses, like excessive speeding and reckless driving, can add 8 or 9 points. It’s important to note that getting points on your license not only results in potential driving record issues, but will almost certainly result in increased insurance premiums. Though a few points may not seem like such a big deal, just wait until your car insurance renews.

Juvenile points system

Drivers less than 18 years of age that accumulate six or more points on their driving record within any 12 month period are sent a notice of proposed suspension from the Department of Safety and are placed in the Driver Improvement Program. The driver will then be required to attend an administrative hearing, with their parent or guardian present, to discuss the points assigned to their driving record. Certain actions, such as a license suspension, could be imposed based on the outcome of the hearing.

Adult points system

Under the adult system, if you accumulate 12 points on your driving record within 12 months, you’ll be required to attend an administrative hearing. If you attend the hearing, you may be given the chance to take a defensive driving class to avoid a suspended license. If you fail to attend the hearing, your license will almost definitely be suspended for between six and 12 months. Before reaching this level, drivers with six to 11 points are sent an advisory letter to warn them that they are approaching the 12 point limit and at risk of losing their license in the event of another traffic violation.

How long will points stay on your license?

Points will stay on your driving record for two years.

What’s a sample point schedule look like?

Here’s an example of one schedule for a variety of traffic violations. There are many more, and each is different depending on the kind of moving violation at issue.To see more, check out the following website:

Moving Traffic Violations
Violation Points
Tickets and Court Abstractions where speed not indicated on source documents 3
Speeding 1 through 5 mph in excess of speed zone 1
Speeding 6 through 15 mph in excess of speed zone 3
Speeding 16 through 25 mph in excess of speed zone 4
Speeding 26 through 35 mph in excess of speed zone 5
Speeding 36 through 45 mph in excess of speed zone 6
Speeding 46 mph and above in excess of speed zone 8
Reckless Driving 6
Signs and control devices - Failing to obey traffic instructions 4
Improper passing - passing where prohibited 4
Wrong way, side or direction 4
Following improperly 3
Failing to yield the right-of-way 4
Making improper turn 4
Violation of driver license or certificate restrictions 6
Reckless endangerment by vehicle, misdemeanor 8
Miscellaneous traffic violations failing to maintain control, improper control, etc., orany offense involving the operation of a motor vehicle not herein specified 3
Leaving the scene of an accident (property damage only) 5
Failure to report an accident (property damage only) 4
Failure to yield to emergency vehicles 6
Failure to stop at railroad crossing 6

How Many Drinks Equals Drunk?

Those who are old enough to drink often wonder how many glasses of beer or wine they can have before becoming legally impaired. It’s a tough question to answer and depends on a multitude of factors including diet, height, weight, gender and metabolism. That being said, conventional wisdom says that for most people drinking one alcoholic beverage per hour will give your body enough time to digest it safely, keeping your BAC below the legal limit.

What qualifies as one drink?

The above wisdom applies to what are known as “standard drinks.” So what on earth is a standard drink? A standard drink is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as half an ounce of alcohol. This means that the amount varies based on the alcohol content of the beverage. For example,the NIAAA says that one standard drink includes the following: one 12 oz. beer,one 5 oz. glass of wine, or one 1.5 oz. shot of distilled spirits.

So how many drinks does it take to be drunk?

Though there is no easy or precise way to answer how many drinks it takes for a person to be legally impaired (there are far too many variables that impact BAC),there are some fairly standard rules of thumb.

If you weigh around 100 pounds, you can generally only consume one serving of alcohol per hour before being at or near the 0.08 level. A man who weighs about 180 pounds can typically consume four standard drinks in an hour before reaching the legal limit of 0.08. Someone weighing closer to 140 may not even be able to have three standard drinks in an hour before being too drunk to drive.

What is BAC?

Blood Alcohol Concentration

Almost everyone who ever sat through a health class has heard the term “BAC.” Though you may have heard it used before you might not fully understand exactly what it means. First things first, BAC stands for “Blood Alcohol Concentration”,and it is a unit of measuring how much alcohol exists in a person’s system.

BAC is not meant to determine exactly how much alcohol a person has consumed, but instead is designed to reveal the percentage of alcohol in their system. This number is supposed to be even more important because this percentage is intended to equate with the extent of impairment that person is operating under.

How is BAC determined?

As we’ve noted, BAC represents the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood. As a result, the number is expressed in milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. The number is also written as a percentage, so the legal limit is actually 0.08 percent.

What factors can impact a person's BAC?

The most obvious factor that can impact your BAC is the amount of alcohol you have consumed. Beyond the number of drinks you’ve had, your BAC can also be affected by your height, weight, metabolism, body fat percentage, diet, what meal you just ate (or didn’t eat) along with many, many other things.

Field Sobriety Tests

Though the hope is that most of you can avoid the unpleasant experience of being pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, everyone should understand what happens in that unfortunate event.Those pulled over for suspected impaired driving will likely experience the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST)

So what is Standardized Field Sobriety Test?

The field sobriety test was first created way back in the 1970s and has been in use ever since. The SFST has been found to serve as a reliable indicator for police officers to detect impairment. For decades the tests have been admitted into court as evidence of intoxication and judges have routinely recognized their accuracy.

What does the SFST involve?

The SFST has three parts: the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (HGN), thewalk-and-turn test (WAT) and the one-leg stand test (OLS).


The first test occurs when officers look for involuntary movement in the driver’s eyes. This movement naturally occurs as people look from side to side, but the movement can be dramatically more pronounced in those who have been drinking.Officers keep an eye out (ha!) for especially twitchy eyes and for any sign that the driver cannot smoothly follow a moving object.


Another commonly used field sobriety test is the walk-and-turn. The WAT is fairly obvious, given the name, in that it requires drivers to walk and turn while following a variety of instructions from the arresting officer. Drivers who are intoxicated tend to have a hard time performing the tasks required of them.Police officers are trained to look for issues with balance, bizarre or halting steps and a failure to follow instructions.


The final component of the SFST is arguably the one most commonly seen on television cop shows: the one-leg stand. In this test, drivers must stand for around 30 seconds while balancing on one foot. Officers watch for swaying or hopping,viewing either as an indication of impairment

So how accurate is the SFST?

While experts agree that no one test by itself definitely shows impairment taken together the three tests are seen as very reliable. The government claims thatthe three tests, when administered together, have 90 percent accuracy in detecting impairment.

Implied Consent

Though it’s a strange concept to some people, Tennessee law says that if you have a Tennessee driver’s license you have automatically granted consent to be tested for the presence of drugs or alcohol if an officer believes you may be driving under the influence. The forms that you signed to get your license include a waiver which grants the power to states to test your blood for the presence of intoxicating substances.

Tennessee’s implied consent law says that if a person charged with a DUI refuses to submit to a blood, breath, or urine test to determine the drug or alcohol content of his or her blood, he may also be charged with an implied consent violation. Though this may seem unfair, it’s important to note that Tennessee motorists do not have a right to speak with an attorney or anyone else before deciding whether or not to submit to a chemical test.

If the officer has a reasonable basis to believe that you are impaired behind the wheel (meaning that there is probable cause) then chances are you will be arrested. Once you are arrested,the officer will likely explain that your license will be suspended if you refuse to submit to a chemical test. The decision is then up to you.

Though you are allowed to refuse to submit to such a test, you should understand that the implied consent laws mean that you agree to certain automatic penalties in the event of a refusal. The penalties for a first refusal begin with suspension of your license for one year,unless the current refusal involved an accident where someone else was seriously injured or killed. For your second refusal, the suspension will before two years. If there was a serious injury, then your suspension will last for two years. If someone died, then your suspension will last for five years.

Underage Drinking and Driving

Everyone knows drinking and driving is a bad idea and can lead to an arrest and criminal conviction in cases where a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds the legal limit. In Tennessee (and every other state in the country), the legal limit is 0.08 percent. This figure, measured as a percentage, refers to the amount of alcohol that is legally allowed to be in a person’s bloodstream while operating a motor vehicle. Though the limit in Tennessee is 0.08 percent, it’s important to understand that this only applies to those drivers 21 and older.

Underage intoxication in Tennessee

For drivers younger than 21, Tennessee law has what’s known as a zero tolerance policy. This means that any driver younger than 21 who is pulled over and found to have a BAC greater than 0.02 percent will be charged with drunk driving.

This difference, between 0.08 and 0.02, might not seem so important, after all, whoever cared about a .06, right? Wrong. Experts say that an average height male weighing around 180 pounds can consume between three and four alcoholic beverages before hitting the 0.08 legal limit. Now imagine that same 180- pound-man is under 21; it will take only one drink for him to hit 0.02 percent. The difference is even greater for women who can hit 0.02 percent BAC with less than one full drink.

Penalties for underage drunk driving

An underage driver who is found to have a BAC greater than 0.02 percent faces serious criminal penalties if pulled over in Tennessee. If convicted, an intoxicated underage driver faces license revocation for a minimum of one year,thousands of dollars in fines, a mandatory alcohol counseling program and possibly even jail time. The exact penalties depend on the level of intoxication at the time of the arrest, whether anyone was injured and whether the incident is a first time or a repeat offense.

While a DUI and all the short-term consequences are bad enough, it’s important to understand that other repercussions can be felt even years later. Many graduate schools require that applicants reveal past criminal convictions, which can negatively impact your chances of admittance. Employers frequently conduct background checks to uncover drunk driving incidents which can act as barriers to finding a job. It can be hard to keep perspective when you’re out having fun with your friends, but it’s important to remember that even one mistake can follow you for years to come.

Boating Under the Influence

While you might think that fun on the lake and some cold beers sounds like a good time, the fact is many people are unaware that laws about operating a boat while under the influence are taken just as seriously as those concerning a motor vehicle.

State law says that it is unlawful to operate any sail or powered vessel while under the influence of intoxicants or drugs. Notice some important words here. First of all, the prohibition is not against alcohol alone. The statute specifies that a person can be arrested and charged with BUI (boating under the influence) if that person is under the influence of any intoxicant, including narcotics, pain pills and even marijuana.

Another important clause in that sentence specifies that BUI laws apply to certain kinds of watercraft, specifically, those powered by engines or sails. That means that something like a kayak would be exempt for drunk boating laws,though this should not be taken as an invitation to get drunk and go kayaking.The point is that you should understand you could be charged for operating a number of motorized watercraft while under the influence, including things like jet skis.

Now that you see how seriously the law views drunken boating, you might be wondering whether alcohol is allowed on board a boat at all. The answer is yes;booze is perfectly legal to have on a boat in Tennessee. The state’s open container laws only apply to motor vehicles, not boats.

That being said, the state’s BUI laws are every bit as stringent as the state’s DUI laws. According to Tennessee statutes, a person is guilty of BUI if he or she is found to be operating a boat with a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater. Depending on the facts of the case, a person may be required to serve up to 11 months and 29 days in jail if convicted of a Tennessee BUI. That person can also be fined an amount up to $2,500 for even a first-time offense. Once convicted, the person may also be prohibited from operating any boat for a period of between one and 10 years.

Also like driving, everyone operating a boat on Tennessee waterways is legally presumed to have given their consent to chemical tests to determine the alcohol or drug content of their blood. This implied consent law means that if arrested for a Tennessee BUI charge, a person who refuses to take a chemical test to determine the alcohol or drug content of his or her blood may also be charged with a violation of the boating implied consent law. Violation of this law requires the suspension of operating privileges for a period of six months in Tennessee.


  1. Applies to juveniles convicted of:
    • Possession, use,sale, or consumption of any alcoholic beverage, wine or beer
    • Possession, use,sale, or consumption of or any controlled substance
    • Carrying of a weapon on school property
  2. You will lose your license for:
    • AT LEAST 1 year or until your 17th birthday (whichever is LONGER) if it is the 1st offense
    • AT LEAST 2 years or until your 18th birthday (whichever is LONGER) if it is the 2nd offense or more
    • The Court will take the license away at your Court hearing.
  3. You may be eligible for reinstatement, at the discretion of the Court after:
    • You complete one or more of the following Court ordered programs:
      • drivers safety course
      • early intervention program
      • youth alcohol safety programs
      • weapons safety course
      • drug and alcohol assessment
    • AND 90 days have passed if it is the first offense
    • OR 1 year has passed if it is the second offense or more
    • If the conviction is for operation of a motor vehicle while impaired, you will not be eligible to get your license reinstated prior to the above time periods in #2.
  4. You may be able to get a restricted license,at the discretion of the Court, IF:
    • It is the 1st offense
    • OR it is the 2nd or more offense and 1 year has passed or you have reached 17 (whichever is later)
    • AND you can prove there is an economic, health care, or educational hardship
    • AND no public transportation is available
    • AND you will only be able to drive to school or work (not to social events or extracurricular activities)
    • AND if it is for work, you must prove the work is necessary for the well-being of the family
    • AND you must carry the restricted license on you at all times
    • AND The Court Order for a restricted license will state exactly what time you are allowed to drive and exactly which places you are allowed to drive to/from. You will still have to pay whatever fees owed and complete any Court Ordered programs.


In the words of the famous Beastie Boys song, sometimes you gotta fight for your right to party! Though most high schoolers are eager to have a good time, few likely realize that their right to party is actually heavily legislated here in Tennessee. Plenty of laws already on the books dictate just how much of a wild time can be had; especially in cases where adults help facilitate the fun. Arguably the most important legislation on the subject is known as the Social Host Liability Law.

Social Host Liability

The aptly named measure went into effect in July of 2009 after legislators made a big push to crack down on cases where adults helped children throw wild and occasionally deadly parties involving underage drinking. The law says that those adults who allow underage drinking at parties they host can face fines and even jail time if one of the underage drinkers injures or kills themselves or others. The law is designed to ensure that grownups suffer stiff penalties for the damage caused by drunk underage individuals.

What does the law say?

Specifically, the law says that it is a crime for an adult to knowingly allow underage drinkers to consume alcoholic beverages on property that they either own or occupy. This means there’s no loophole for renters; any adult hosting a party anywhere is potentially liable.

Some of you might be wondering if it would be OK to find an adult to buy the booze and have the party elsewhere. Sorry, the law is already two steps ahead and covers that issue specifically, saying that it is a criminal offense to give or buy alcoholic beverages “for or on behalf of any minor.” Those legislators think of everything!

The law that was in place prior to 2009 said that adults would only be prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in cases where the underage drinkers were younger than 18. The Social Host Liability Law raises the limit of liability to anyone younger than 21 and significantly stiffens the penalties faced by responsible adults.

What’s the punishment?

The law should send a pretty chilling message to any parent eager to be seen as “cool” in their kids’ eyes. Even the most awesome of all parties is not worth the risk of serious jail time that would come with a conviction. An adult who is found to violate the law could wind up paying $2,500 in fines and face up to 11 months and 29 days behind bars, a stiff price to pay for a good time. In addition to such extreme penalties, adults can also have their driver’s licenses revoked for up to a year and be ordered to engage in community service.

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