Underage DUI: Drugs

The crime of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) can have serious penalties for young drivers, including suspension of their driver’s licenses.

For more information on minors driving under the influence of alcohol, see Underage DUI.

Drugs can affect each person in unique ways and, unlike the situation with alcohol, no singular test exists for the presence of all drugs in the body. Most states deal with this uncertainty by one of two ways:

  • making it illegal to drive with any amount of detectable drugs in the body, or
  • making it illegal to drive only when impaired by such drugs.

These two approaches are explained below.

Zero Tolerance Laws: Illegal Drugs

Some states have passed “Zero Tolerance Laws,” which make it illegal for an underage driver (under the age of 21) to operate a car with any amount of illegal drugs in the body, even when there is no evidence that the person’s ability to drive is impaired.

Seventeen states have Zero Tolerance Laws that apply to all drivers, not just minors.

Zero Tolerance Laws apply to all sorts of illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, heroin, morphine, and marijuana.

Impaired Driving Laws: Legal and Illegal Drugs

Some states have laws that make it illegal for people to drive while impaired for any reason, including legal drug use (use of a prescription medicine). Under these laws, the focus is on whether the driver is able to safely operate a vehicle.

People may be prosecuted under a state’s impaired driving laws after using illegal drugs or legal drugs (such as sleeping pills, prescribed narcotics or pain killers, or even decongestants). The fact that a drug is taken as prescribed (or that an over-the-counter drug is taken according to the directions) is no defense to the crime of impaired driving.

Marijuana Blood-Level Limit?

When drivers are charged with impaired driving due to alcohol use, having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or higher is conclusive evidence of impairment. Currently, there is no similar standardized threshold for marijuana. That may change one day. Some states have tried to pass laws enacting a certain marijuana blood-level limit (for example, five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood). So far, no state has been successful.

However, there does appear to be some support for the idea from the federal government. In the past, the federal government succeeded in pressuring the states, through the threat of lost federal highway funds, into increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 and suspending the driver’s license of any minor caught with a BAC of over .02%. Given these successful past efforts, it would not be a surprise to see similar federal pressure brought to bear, with every state eventually enacting a standardized marijuana blood-level limit, similar to a BAC.

Detecting Intoxication or the Presence of Drugs

If you are a minor and are stopped by a police officer on suspicion of a DUID, the officer will have to determine if you are impaired or if any drugs are present in your body. As explained, there is no simple way to test for all possible drugs.

Many police departments have officers trained in drug recognition. To determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs, officers may:

  • question the driver
  • administer roadside breath tests (if alcohol is suspected, or to rule out alcohol)
  • test the driver’s vital signs and muscle tone
  • observe the driver’s pupils in darkness and in bright light
  • look for signs of intravenous drug use (“track marks”)
  • administer field sobriety tests (FSTs), or
  • administer chemical tests.

Field Sobriety Tests

If a driver is suspected of DUID, officers will commonly ask the driver to:

  • stand on one leg while counting for up to 30 seconds
  • walk nine steps in a straight line, turn around, and walk back, and
  • visually track a pen (also called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test).

In most states, drivers are free to refuse to perform FSTs and cannot be penalized for doing so. However, refusing to perform a FST may make an investigating officer more suspicious and prolong a traffic stop. Also, in some but not all states, the prosecutor may tell the judge or jury about a driver’s refusal to cooperate, which entitles the judge or jury to consider that as evidence of intoxication.

For more information, see Refusing to Perform a Field Sobriety Test.

Chemical and Breath Tests

To test for the presence of drugs or alcohol, officers may also ask a driver to blow into a roadside alcohol test (a portable machine that measures the presence of alcohol in your body) or a Breathalyzer (a more sensitive machine, usually located at a police station). Or, the officer may ask the driver to provide a urine, blood, saliva, or hair sample for testing for the presence of drugs.

Compared with alcohol, it can be much harder to determine from a chemical test whether a person is currently impaired due to drug use. Some drugs, like marijuana, stay in the bloodstream long after the high has worn off. Other drugs, like cocaine, wear off quite quickly. Some drugs do not show up in some tests.

Refusing to Provide a Sample

In many states, drivers who refuse to submit a sample for a blood, urine, hair, saliva, 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.

Additionally, in some but not all states, the prosecutor may tell the judge or jury about the driver’s refusal. For more information, see Refusing to Submit to a Breathalyzer or Blood Test.

Punishment

Depending on the state’s laws, minors can have their licenses summarily suspended or revoked if they:

  • drive while using illegal drugs
  • drive while impaired, or
  • refuse to take a chemical test.

Often, the police officer who 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, suspensions of six months to two years are not uncommon.

Other penalties

Additional punishments for underage DUID convictions vary depending on the facts of the offense and the state’s laws. A DUID that results in an accident that causes injury or death will be dealt with much more harshly than a DUID that results in a mere traffic law violation.

Possible consequences include:

  • jail time or time in a juvenile facility
  • participation in an drug treatment program
  • restitution (repayment) for any damages caused to property or medical expenses
  • driving safety classes
  • community service, and
  • fines.

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 DUID would be prosecuted as an adult unless someone was injured or the minor had a significant criminal history.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If you or your child is arrested for a being a minor driving under the influence of drugs, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney will understand 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 rest of the criminal justice system and achieve the best possible outcome for you or your child.

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