While the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, studies consistently show that most young people begin drinking alcohol before their 21st birthday and that underage drinking can lead to dangerous behaviors such as binge drinking and drinking and driving. In an effort to combat underage drinking and driving, the federal government passed a law requiring each state, under the threat of losing federal highway money, to suspend the license of any minor driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .02% or higher.
Zero Tolerance Laws
To comply with this federal law, states have passed “Zero Tolerance Laws” that make it illegal for a minor to operate a car after drinking even a very small amount of alcohol, even when there is no evidence that the minor’s ability to drive was impaired. In addition to losing their licenses, minors who violate their state’s Zero Tolerance Law may also suffer other consequences.
Operating a vehicle
States define driving or operating a vehicle in different ways. In some states, operating a vehicle is broadly defined to include being in control of the car, even if it is not moving. For example, sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition may be considered operating a vehicle.
Blood alcohol content
Depending on the state, the BAC limit for minors may be .00%, .01%, or .02%. In states with a .00% limit, it is a crime for a minor to drive after drinking any amount of alcohol. Even in states with slightly higher BAC limits, a minor who has one drink or even one-half of a drink could be convicted of a DUI.
Adult DUI Laws
In contrast to Zero Tolerance Laws, adult DUI laws generally have a BAC limit of .08%. However, just like Zero Tolerance Laws, a BAC over the legal limit is considered conclusive evidence of impairment. In many states, a minor who has a BAC of .08% or higher may be prosecuted under the adult DUI laws. Usually, a person cannot be convicted of violating both the minor and adult DUI laws.
Under each state’s Zero Tolerance Law, minors who drive with BAC over the legal limit will lose their licenses and may also face other penalties.
Driver’s license suspension
Minors can lose their licenses if they:
- have a BAC over state’s Zero Tolerance limit, or
- refuse to take a BAC test (such as a blood test or a Breathalyzer).
Often, the police officer that makes the traffic stop or responds to the accident can take and suspend the minor’s driver’s license then and there. While the length of the suspension can vary based on the state, the minor’s age, and the minor’s BAC, suspensions of one to two years are not uncommon.
Additional punishments for underage DUI convictions vary depending on the facts of the offense and the state’s laws. A DUI that results in an accident that causes injury or death will be dealt with much more harshly than a DUI that results in a mere traffic law violation.
Possible consequences include:
- jail time or time in a juvenile facility
- participation in an alcohol treatment program
- restitution (repayment) for any damages caused to property or medical expenses
- driving safety classes
- installation of an ignition lock that only permits the driver to start their car after blowing into a Breathalyzer
- community service, and
Punishment for multiple DUIs
While first-time offenders face stiff penalties, many states have imposed harsher punishments for second (or subsequent) DUI convictions. Depending on the state, second DUIs may be treated as felonies, or may require mandatory jail time (or time in a juvenile facility) in addition to the other penalties listed above. In many states, a conviction or license suspension for an underage DUI can qualify as a first offense if the defendant is later convicted of DUI as a minor or as an adult.
Being prosecuted as an adult
Sometimes, children over a certain age (often 16) who are charged with serious crimes (usually felonies) may be charged in adult, not juvenile, court. The prosecutor or judge may decide to treat a juvenile as an adult if the charge is serious or if the child has previously been convicted of a crime. If prosecuted as an adult, the juvenile is transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into the adult criminal justice system. In most cases, it is unlikely that a minor charged with a DUI would be prosecuted as an adult unless someone was injured or the minor had prior convictions.
Field Sobriety and Chemical Tests When Stopped for a DUI
If you are a minor and are stopped by a police officer on suspicion of a DUI, the officer will almost certainly ask you to exit the car. The officer will probably ask you to perform one or more field sobriety tests (FSTs). Common FSTs include standing on one foot, reciting the alphabet backward, and following a pen with your eyes. The officer may also ask you to blow into a roadside alcohol test (a portable machine that measures the presence of alcohol in you body). Or, the officer may ask you to provide a urine sample or take a blood test to measure any alcohol in your body, or submit to a Breathalyzer test (a more accurate breath test, performed at the police station, that measures the amount of alcohol in your breath, which will reflect the amount of alcohol in your blood).
Drivers sometimes refuse to perform FSTs and won't cooperate in providing urine or blood samples or performing breath tests. Drivers are usually free to refuse to perform FSTs. In many states, however, drivers that refuse to submit a sample for a blood, urine, or Breathalyzer test will automatically have their driver's licenses suspended or revoked, courtesy of the state's “Implied Consent Law.” This law provides that, upon receiving a driver's license, every driver has thereby consented to take chemical tests when asked by an officer. The law further provides that any refusal will result in suspension or revocation. Implied Consent Laws occasionally also apply to roadside breath tests.
In some states, in a case where DUI is suspected an officer can also take a blood sample without the driver’s consent and without a warrant. In other states, officers can only do so if there are special facts that make it necessary to do a blood draw before too much time passes and the alcohol in the driver’s blood dissipates. In these states, an officer can do a blood draw without a driver’s consent only if, for example, the driver has been seriously injured, and the officer needs to do the blood draw immediately before transporting the driver to the hospital for medical treatment.
However, no matter where you live, your right to refuse a blood draw may change, depending on a decision from the United States Supreme Court, expected sometime in 2013 or later. In Missouri v. McNeely, Supreme Court Docket No. 11-1425, the officer forcibly drew blood without first obtaining a warrant, and the results of the blood test were admitted in the defendant’s trial. The Court will decide whether acting without a warrant was justified merely because alcohol dissipates rather quickly over time (leaving the officer with no time to apply for a warrant), or whether other exceptional circumstances must also be present.
A secondary consequence of refusing to cooperate with FSTs or chemical tests concerns the ability of the prosecutor to introduce this refusal into evidence in any subsequent trial. In some but not all states, the prosecutor may tell the judge or jury about your refusal, which entitles the judge or jury to consider that as evidence of your intoxication.
If you are arrested, you will be read your Miranda rights, taken to a police station, booked, and you may even be placed in a cell. You should always ask to speak to your parents and a lawyer before saying anything or admitting guilt to a police officer.
Underage DUI Laws by State
Find the link to your state to get in-depth information surrounding underage DUI laws and penalties.
Getting Legal Advice and Representation
If you or your child is arrested for a being a minor driving under the influence, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney will be able to tell you the laws in your state and how the case is likely to be treated in your community. Some consequences, such as a driver’s license suspension may be unavoidable, but a lawyer can help you navigate the criminal justice system and achieve the best outcome for you or your child.