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Underage DUI: Zero Tolerance Laws

Driving a motor vehicle anywhere in the country is dangerous and illegal when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is certainly just as true — if not more so — if you are under the legal drinking age.

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that alcohol is the most frequently used and abused drug among youth ages 15 to 20. While adults drive while intoxicated more often than teenagers, young people are more likely to have accidents after drinking. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers. More than 29% of drivers between 15 and 20 years old who died in crashes had consumed alcohol, according to 2020 data.

To help curb these numbers, all states have enacted underage DUI laws called zero tolerance laws. These statutes make it a crime for anyone under the age of 21 to drive while intoxicated.

What Is Zero Tolerance?

It is illegal for people under 21 years of age to buy and possess alcohol in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Zero tolerance laws aim to combat the genuine dangers of underage drinking.

Zero tolerance laws make it a criminal DUI offense for drivers under 21 to operate a vehicle with even a small amount of alcohol in their system. This limit ranges from 0.00% to 0.02% blood alcohol concentration (BAC), depending on the state.

A BAC of 0.02% is possible with only one alcoholic beverage and can lead a young driver to an underage DUI charge.

Zero Tolerance Laws Work

Motor vehicle crashes are the nation's leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, many of these fatalities are alcohol-related. The alcohol involvement rate for young drivers is roughly twice that of over-21 drivers, according to the NHTSA. At the same time, underage drinking at even low levels presents a greater risk of fatal crashes.

The National Highway Systems Designation Act of 1995 mandated that states consider a 0.02% BAC or lower for under-21 drivers to be charged with driving under the influence. States must follow that mandate to qualify for Federal-Aid Highway Program funds. To comply, all states have to set 0.02% or lower legal blood alcohol content. This legal limit for underage drivers is known as a per se offense. That means police don't have to prove intoxication if the driver is above the state's legal limit.

A 1995 study found that the first states to set a 0% BAC limit for certain young drivers saw a 22% decline in fatal single-car nighttime crashes. States with a 0.02% limit saw a 17% reduction. And a 1999 study linked zero tolerance laws to a 24% drop in the share of crashes linked to underage drinking.

Beyond the risks to health and safety posed by underage drinking and driving, DUI offenses can have long-ranging implications that reach far into a young driver's future. An early drunk driving conviction can affect employment background checks and car insurance coverage. You may also have to disclose criminal convictions, including a DUI, on college applications.

Underage DUI Offense

When law enforcement suspects you are driving under the influence, they will ask you to submit to chemical and field sobriety tests. Chemical tests may include a Breathalyzer or breath test to determine your BAC level. Law enforcement may also ask for urine and blood tests, which can confirm a breath BAC test and look for drugs.

Under state law, police officers expect you to cooperate with chemical tests. All states have enacted implied consent laws, which state that anyone with a driver's license has indicated their consent to these tests. You may refuse the tests, but there are immediate consequences. Usually, you face suspension of driving privileges, a fine, or possible arrest. You can still receive a DUI charge as well.

If you're underage, law enforcement will charge you with a misdemeanor if your BAC exceeds your state's legal limit for young drivers, even if it's under 0.08%. Within this BAC range, while still a criminal offense, your case will go to your state's juvenile or family courts.

You will likely face an adult DUI charge if you are underage and register a BAC of 0.08% or higher.

Consequences of an Underage DUI Conviction

For a first-offense DUI conviction, you will face a lengthy driver's license suspension, fines, and court costs. It may be possible to get a restricted driver's license that will allow you to drive to school, work, and DUI classes. However, you must usually install an ignition interlock device as part of this license. An ignition interlock device acts as a breath test to prevent your car from operating if you have any alcohol in your system.

If your BAC was below 0.08%, it's unlikely you will serve jail time. You should expect some probation, substance abuse classes, treatment, and community service hours.

An underage motorist with a BAC of 0.08% or greater can face a license revocation until they reach 21. DUI penalties will be far more severe in this instance, with heftier fines and probation requirements.

Charged With an Underage DUI? Contact an Attorney Today

You should take an underage DUI charge seriously. The effects of a conviction can impact your life for years. A defense lawyer can help you assess your case, provide valuable legal advice, and protect your best interests. Get started today, and contact a DUI defense attorney near you.

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