Like a standard DUI, an underage DUI criminalizes the actions of a driver who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle after having too much to drink. However, underage DUIs specifically target drivers who are under the age of 21 and have committed the dual offenses of illegal consumption of alcohol and driving while intoxicated. Since underage drunk drivers are particularly dangerous, they are subject to strict laws and penalties.
Much like DUIs, underage drinking and driving is a significant problem in the United States. However, thanks to the implementation of strong state laws and the efforts of law enforcement, the number of underage drunk driving fatalities has decreased by almost 60 percent in the last two decades, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite these decreases, there is continued room for improvement. In 2012, an average of more than three people under the age of 21 died each day from alcohol-related driving incidents.
Zero Tolerance Laws
To reduce the number of underage drivers involved in alcohol-related crashes, many states have passed “zero tolerance” laws that make it illegal for an underage driver to operate a vehicle after consuming even small amounts of alcohol. These zero tolerance laws derive from a federal Zero Tolerance Bill, which was enacted to discourage drunk driving among minors. The bill requires that all states make it illegal for a minor to drive with a blood alcohol level of .02 percent or higher. If states do not enact such laws, they can be denied access to federal highway funds for their state.
A driver under 21 may be charged with a DUI even if their BAC is only 0.01 or 0.02%.
Unlike adult DUIs, which typically require that a driver has a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher, an underage driver may be charged with a DUI even if his or her blood alcohol content is only .01 or .02 percent, the equivalent of one drink or less. In fact, since the laws are zero tolerance, an underage driver does not even have to exhibit any evidence of impaired driving. The simple fact that he or she has consumed alcohol, even in some small amount, is sufficient to support an underage DUI charge.
In a few states, zero tolerance laws apply to all underage drivers who have taken a drink, even if they do not register a blood alcohol content. In these states, driving after drinking any amount of alcohol is a crime. Thus, drivers with a blood alcohol level of .00 percent would still find themselves facing serious consequences in court.
Punishment Under Zero Tolerance Laws
Punishments for underage DUI may be steep, and while jail time is rare, it is not off the table.
An underage DUI can result in fines of several hundred to several thousand dollars, and it will almost always be accompanied by a license suspension for at least a year. In some states, minors may also have their vehicles impounded. While jail time is rare, the possibility increases depending on the minor’s blood alcohol content. The higher the content, the stiffer the penalties, and the more likely it is that jail time may be imposed.
Since one of the primary purposes of underage DUI laws is to prevent minors from consuming alcohol and operating a vehicle, many states also impose mandatory educational classes on the dangers of drinking and driving. Depending on the circumstances of the case, they may also require the minor to attend an alcohol rehabilitation program.