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Underage DUI in Tennessee: Penalties, Defenses, and How an Attorney Can Help

You’ve been arrested for DUI? Now what?
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Facing an underaged DUI charge can be an overwhelming experience. Knoxville is a college town, and whether you are attending the University of Tennessee, Pellissippi State, any of the many other schools in our area, underage DUI can cause a serious strain on your current studies and future career prospects if not addressed head on.  


The laws and penalties surrounding underage DUIs in Tennessee are strict, and the consequences of a conviction can be severe. This page provides an overview of the penalties for underage driving while impaired (DWI), the potential defenses, and how a underage DUI defense attorney can aid in your case.

Underage DUI vs. Adult DUI

It is important to understand that DUI laws in Tennessee differentiate between drivers who are under 21 and those who are 21 or older. For adults, the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08%. However, for drivers under 21, Tennessee has a legal limit of .02%. Like adult DUI, impairment by alcohol or any other substance that causes an inability to safely operate a motor vehicle, even in the absence of a BAC result, is a crime.   

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Penalties for Underage DUI in Tennessee

The penalties for an underage DUI in Tennessee are significant but differ from an adult DUI. A conviction for a first offense underage DUI results in a one-year license suspension, a fine of up to $250, and possible community service. Furthermore, the conviction will remain on your record, which can impact future job opportunities, college applications, and more. Repeat underage DUI offenders or cases with additional factors, such as causing an accident or bodily harm, can face even more severe penalties.


An Underage DUI in Tennessee does not carry jail time and probation the way an adult DUI does. However, there is no way for an underage person to get a restricted or hardship license during the one-year suspension, meaning that any driving during the entire year after a conviction would be a new crime. Not being able to drive for an entire year is an extreme hardship to most, especially in east Tennessee where driving a car is a daily necessity.  

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Defenses Against Underage DUI Charges

Despite the severity of an underage DUI charge, there are a variety of legal defenses that may be available. Here are some common ones:

Under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, law enforcement officers need a valid reason, such as a traffic violation or reasonable suspicion of a crime, to stop a vehicle. If the officer didn’t have a legitimate reason to pull you over, your underage DUI defense attorney can argue that the traffic stop was unlawful. If successful, any evidence gathered during the unlawful stop, including breathalyzer results and field sobriety tests, could be excluded from the court proceedings which would usually lead to a dismissal of charges.

Breathalyzer tests are not always 100% accurate and may be influenced by factors such as calibration issues, operator error, or medical conditions. There are also strict criteria for the admission of these tests into evidence under two Tennessee cases called State v. Sensing and State v. Korsakov.

An experienced Tennessee underaged DUI attorney can scrutinize the administration and results of the BAC test, potentially exposing inaccuracies or procedural errors that could cast doubt on the evidence or keep it from being used against you entirely.

Every individual has rights that law enforcement officers must respect during an arrest for underage DUI. For instance, the police are required to read you your Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent…”) when they take you into custody if they intend to question you about what happened. If they fail to do so, or if they violate other rights, such as conducting an illegal search, this could form the basis for a defense. When Miranda is violated, any incriminating statements you made cannot be used in prosecuting you for underage DUI. In the case of an illegal search, any evidence recovered as a result of that search will be excluded from being used in the case.

DUI is different than many crimes in that much of the evidence in many cases is the subjective opinion of a police officer. While officers are trained to administer field tests and look for signs and symptoms of impairment, the judgments that they make as a result of that training are not perfect. In the absence of an admissible BAC result, often information not known to, or misinterpreted by, the officer can be used to argue that the level of proof of impairment is to small to convict for the offense of underage DUI.

Judicial Diversion in Tennessee

In Tennessee, first-time offenders may be eligible for judicial diversion, a law that can prevent a conviction from appearing on a permanent criminal record. Judicial diversion is not available to adult DUI offenders but underage DUI offenders may be eligible if they meet certain requirements.


If a judicial diversion can be negotiated and if any conditions are successfully completed, the court dismisses the charges, and the arrest can be expunged from the defendant’s record. This can be particularly beneficial for young offenders, as it prevents an underage DUI conviction from affecting future opportunities, like college admissions or job applications. However, eligibility for judicial diversion depends on several factors, including the nature of the offense and the defendant’s prior criminal record.

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How a DUI Defense Attorney Can Help

Navigating an underage DUI charge can be a complex process, but an underage DUI defense attorney can be an invaluable ally. Here’s how:


  1. Investigate and Evaluate Your Case: Every case is unique. An experienced attorney can review the specifics of your situation, identify potential weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, and design a tailored defense strategy. This is done by thorough investigation and preparation of your case, including your underage DUI defense attorney ordering and thoroughly reviewing all video and audio footage captured, 911 calls, police reports, applicable medical records and other records and documents that may speak to the facts of the case or your particular background and circumstances.


  1. Guide You Through the Legal Process: The legal process can be overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with it. Your attorney can demystify the process, explain your rights and options, and guide you through every step of an underage DUI charge. There are numerous stages and court appearances that you will need to navigate, starting with arraignment, proceeding through status court dates, hearing dates, and in some cases trial. These take place over many months and there are important tasks that must be accomplished before each stage. An attorney with experience defending underage DUIs in Tennessee state court will make getting through this process much less stressful and smooth.


  1. Negotiate on Your Behalf: In some cases, it may be possible to negotiate a plea deal with the prosecution or argue for reduced charges. An attorney can leverage their knowledge and experience to negotiate the best possible outcome of your underage DUI charge on your behalf. The possibility of a reduced charge will depend on many factors that your attorney should be aware of. You will be able to discuss these factors, how your case should best be presented and all the options available to you with your lawyer.


  1. Represent You in Court: When negotiation does not result in an outcome you are comfortable with, fighting your case in court is your only option. Your lawyer can conduct a preliminary hearing to evaluate the state’s witnesses, determine what motions may need to be filed and argued, and if your case goes to trial, an attorney can present your defense to the jury, cross-examine witnesses, and argue for your acquittal.

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An underage DUI charge in Tennessee is a serious matter, but with the right legal assistance, you can face the challenge head-on. At Barnes & Fersten, our Knoxville-based law firm fights for numerous citizens facing an underage DUI charge every year. We know your future is on the line and treat each case with the seriousness it deserves to make sure we achieve the best results possible. If you or a loved one is facing an underage DUI charge, don’t hesitate to reach out for a consultation at (865) 805-5703. Let us use our experience to help you navigate this difficult time.

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