Underage DUI/DWI Laws & Penalties

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

By , Attorney

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 Drunk 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 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 excessive of these low limits after just one drink or less.

Underage Drug DUI Laws

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Driver's License Suspension

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.

Jail Time, Fines, and Other Penalties

In addition to license suspension, an underage DUI violation will typically result in a number of other penalties. Generally, the underage offender will have to pay a fine and certain fees. Consequences of the violation might also include:

  • jail time (if the offender is at least 18 years old) or time in a juvenile facility
  • participation in a substance abuse treatment program
  • driving safety classes
  • installation of an ignition interlock device, and
  • community service.

The severity of the penalties normally increases if the driver has prior DUI violations. But, again, penalty specifics depend on state law and the circumstances of the case.

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.

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 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.

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