TBI's "monetary incentive" for DUI convictions raises questions - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

TBI's "monetary incentive" for DUI convictions raises questions

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

One Chattanooga lawyer is challenging the constitutionality of a law that allows the TBI to get an automatic $250 for test results leading to conviction, and some local judges are listening.

"Every blood sample they test or every breath machine they calibrate, they get $250 for every conviction. We contend that violates due process of law," said defense attorney Jerry Summers.

Summers plus 22 of his DUI clients are bringing questions about the fee to light in Hamilton County's court system.

According to the TBI's latest DUI arrest report, there were 29,554 DUI arrests in the state last year. The report noted an 89-percent conviction rate, which can eventually total up to millions of dollars out of that incentive.

Summers is challenging the state law that uses the money to pay its crime lab workers.

"You very seldom get a statute declared unconstitutional in lower court because all statutes of the legislature are presumed to be constitutional," Summers said.

But all three Criminal Court judges in Hamilton County found the statute's "contingent fee-dependent system" unfair enough to start telling juries about the incentive before deliberating.

The weight juries will give it is still up in the air.

"That charge to the jury at least says, 'Whoa, wait a minute' on their credibility because they've got an incentive of money that may or may not benefit them," said Summers.

The District Attorney's office calls the claims "ludicrous" and filed a motion asking judges to reconsider what they tell the jury. It said TBI's results would be given less weight due to the "supposed financial incentive to produce incriminating results."

"Almost everything in the judicial process costs money," said DUI prosecutor Kate Lavery. "The easiest and fairest way to pay for things is levying fines against the person who is convicted."

"I know somebody will say 'You're being Don Quixote again', but all I want is a level playing field," Summers said.

TBI denies any insinuation that their agency plays a role in influencing results of their lab's forensic tests. They released a statement saying, "Our forensic scientists rarely know the outcome of any legal proceedings associated with their analysis. Running these tests does incur costs. But any claim that there is a financial incentive that influences the findings of these scientists is absolutely unfounded."

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