Every state prohibits the operation of a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But states also have "not-a-drop" or "zero-tolerance" laws for drivers under 21 years of age. These laws generally prohibit driving after consuming any amount of alcohol. However, the details of the restrictions and penalties for violations differ between states. This article outlines generally when an underage driver can be charged with a zero-tolerance DUI and some of the possible consequences of a conviction.
Drivers who are younger than 21 years old are generally prohibited from consuming alcohol and are certainly prohibited from driving after drinking. State laws that prohibit underage drinking and driving go by different names such as "zero-tolerance," "underage DUI," "minor DUI," "not-a-drop," and the like. But, in essence, these laws set a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit that's much lower for underage drivers than it is for drivers who are at least 21 years old.
The BAC limit for drivers who are of the legal drinking age is .08% (or .05% in Utah). In contrast, the underage DUI laws of many states—including Washington, South Carolina, and Colorado—prohibit the operation of a vehicle with a BAC of .02% or more. Other states prohibit underage drivers from operating a vehicle with any measurable amount of alcohol in their system. So even if not visibly impaired, a driver who's under 21 years old can be charged with an underage DUI based on having a very small amount of alcohol in his or her body.
In many states, underage DUIs are criminal offenses and are prosecuted in criminal court. In criminal cases, the accused driver has a right to a trial. But in most cases, criminal charges are resolved through plea bargaining.
In some states—like Florida and Kansas—an underage DUI isn't a crime but considered an administrative violation. In these states, the offender will receive a notice of violation which explains the penalties of the offense. There won't be a criminal trial, but the offender can request an administrative hearing to contest the violation. At the hearing, the state and the accused driver can present evidence. The hearing officer will then decide at the conclusion of the hearing whether there's enough evidence to sustain the violation (basically, whether the evidence shows the driver committed the offense).
As with a standard DUI investigation, an officer who suspects an underage driver has been drinking will typically request BAC testing. Generally, state implied consent laws require drivers who are lawfully arrested for a DUI or an underage DUI to submit to a blood or breath test when requested to do so by an officer. In an underage DUI investigation, an arrest is generally lawful if the officer has reasonable cause to believe the driver consumed any amount of alcohol.
Drivers who refuse to submit to a lawful chemical test request will normally face a license suspension that's longer than would result from a normal underage DUI violation.
The penalties associated with an underage DUI are generally less severe than those of a standard DUI conviction. Also, the penalties might be different depending on the underage driver's specific age. For example, jail time isn't usually a possible consequence for drivers who are younger than 18 years old.
Jail time and fines. In many states, an underage DUI can't result in jail time. However, other states allow judges to order a short jail sentence. The laws in many states also impose fines for underage DUI violations.
Underage DUI probation. The laws in many states give judges the option of placing an underage DUI offender on probation for up to a year. Conditions of probation might include random sobriety testing, attendance at a victim impact panel, or some sort of treatment program.
License suspension. An underage DUI will almost always lead to license suspension. The suspension period typically ranges from 30 days to one year, depending on the state. Some states will completely revoke the license of younger drivers, requiring them to complete the graduated license process from the beginning. In some states, suspended drivers can obtain a restricted license by installing an ignition interlock device.