Underage DUI/DWI Laws & Penalties

Learn the basics of underage DUI/DWI laws and penalties including information in your state.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 11/09/2022

While the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, underage drinking is fairly common. 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 concentration (BAC) of .02% or more.

Teen Drinking and Driving Laws

State underage DUI laws generally apply to drivers who are under the age of 21 and set the BAC limit at .02% or less. And all drivers who are lawfully arrested for driving under the influence or an underage DUI violation are required to submit to BAC testing (usually a breath or blood test) when requested to do so by an officer.

Teen drunk driving laws typically focus on the amount of alcohol in the underage driver's system. If the underage driver's BAC is above the limit, a conviction is possible even without proof of actual impairment. In other words, you don't have to be drunk to be convicted—having BAC that's above the legal limit is enough.

Zero Tolerance DUI Laws for Teen Drivers

Some states go further than the federal requirement and make it illegal for drivers who are under the age of 21 to operate a vehicle with any measurable amount of alcohol in their system. These types of laws are often called "zero tolerance" laws.

BAC (Blood Alcohol) Levels that Apply to Underage Drivers

Perhaps in recognition that some products such as mouthwashes contain small amounts of alcohol, the underage DUI laws of many states set the BAC limit at .01% or .02%. Though these laws are less strict than their zero-tolerance counterparts, they don't allow underage drivers much leeway. A person will typically register a BAC that's in excess of these low limits after just one drink or less.

Underage Drivers and Drug Use

The underage DUI laws of many states also prohibit these younger drivers from operating a vehicle with any amount (or a certain amount) of illegal drugs in their system. Again, these laws focus on the amount or presence of drugs in the underage driver's body. So, proof of actual impairment isn't required for a conviction.

Elements of Underage DUI Charges: What the Prosecution Must Prove

To prove an underage or zero-tolerance offense, prosecutors generally need to prove the underage driver:

  • was operating or in actual physical control of a vehicle, and
  • had an unlawful concentration of alcohol or drugs in his or her system.

In some states, the prosecution must also prove that the offense took place on a public roadway.

Operating or Being in Actual Physical Control of 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 actual physical control of the car, even if it is not moving. Under this standard, sitting in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition might be enough to get a DUI. In other states, proof of actual driving is required for a conviction.

Unlawful Amount of Drugs or Alcohol

As previously discussed, the underage or zero-tolerance laws of each state specify the prohibited amount of drugs and/or alcohol. In most cases, the prosecution will use blood or breath test results to prove this element of the offense.

Public Road Requirement

The DUI laws of some states apply only to vehicles on public roadways and private roadways that are open to the public. However, other states have DUI laws that apply more broadly to everywhere within state borders.

In states with DUI laws that don't apply everywhere within state lines, the prosecution must also prove the offense took place on a public road or private roadway that's open to the public.

Underage DUI Penalties

Underage DUI penalties are a product of state law. So the potential consequences you'll face for an underage DUI conviction depend on the laws of the state where you're convicted. But in many states, underage DUI penalties might include:

  • license suspension
  • fines and fees
  • community service
  • ignition interlock devices, and
  • having to complete educational or substance abuse programs.

Depending on the state and age of the offender, jail time is also sometimes a possibility

Driver's License Suspension for Underage DUIs

Although the details of state laws vary, underage DUI offenders can count on losing their driving privileges for a period of time. Depending on the state, the minimum suspension period is typically anywhere from 30 days to one year for a first offense. For a second offense, the suspension period will generally be longer.

Fines for Underage DUIs

Underage DUI offenders will generally have to pay some sort of fine or fee. The amount an underage offender has to pay is typically less than $1,000.

Jail Time and Community Service for Underage Drinking and Driving

In some states, an underage DUI conviction can lead to jail time. However, jail time is usually a possibility only if the offender is at least 18 years old.

Certain states also allowed judges to order an underage offender to complete community service in lieu of or instead of jail time.

Ignition Interlock Devices for Underage DUI Offenders

An ignition interlock device (IID) is basically a breathalyzer that is wired to the vehicle's ignition. In order to start the vehicle, someone must blow into the IID with an alcohol-free breath.

Judges in many states can or are required to order underage DUI offenders to use an IID for a period of time once their license is reinstated. Some states also allow underage offenders to drive during the suspension period with an IID.

Treatment and Educational Requirements for Underage DUI Violations

It's fairly common for state laws to require underage DUI offenders to complete some type of educational program about the dangers of driving under the influence or a full treatment program. In order to determine the appropriate program, some states require offenders to complete a substance abuse assessment.

When an Underage Offender Violates Standard DUI Laws

The DUI laws of every state prohibit drivers from operating a vehicle with a BAC of .08% or more (.05% or more in Utah) or while actually impaired by drugs or alcohol.

If an underage driver has a BAC that's above the .08% limit or is impaired by drugs or alcohol as defined by state law, he or she can be charged with a standard adult DUI. And, the penalties for a standard DUI are typically more severe than those for an underage DUI and often include the possibility of jail time (assuming the driver is at least 18 years old).

Underage DUI Laws by State

Find the link to your state to get in-depth information surrounding underage DUI laws and penalties.

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If you or your child is arrested for 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.

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