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Understanding Underage DUI Charges

Police car pulling over a teen due to driving under the influence

When an alcohol-fueled high school party comes to an end, the aftermath usually involves many teens driving under the influence. This is illegal, not to mention incredibly dangerous, and a driving under the influence (DUI) charge can easily follow if an impaired teen is pulled over.

Federal law states that it is illegal for anyone to operate a vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above .08. For those under the legal drinking age of 21, however, there is a zero tolerance policy toward alcohol. A teen could be arrested for having a BAC as low as .01.

While the punishments, fees, and fines incurred in individual states vary, a DUI almost always results in a lost license, steep financial costs, and other negative consequences. In some cases, a teen doesn’t even have to be behind the wheel to be charged for a DUI.

Teenage DUI Statistics

In 2018, it’s estimated that:

  • Drivers aged 16–20 accounted for 15% of alcohol-related traffic fatalities
  • There were 10,011 deaths caused by drivers with a BAC of .08 or more
  • Men were almost four times more likely to drive under the influence

It’s very possible to become impaired or reach the legal limit after a drink or two, especially in teens. People aged 12–20 account for 11% of all U.S. alcohol consumption each year. In addition, they are more likely to binge drink (drink more than five beers in one sitting for men or more than four beers in one sitting for women). Because of the zero tolerance policy for people younger than 21 — and because it’s incredibly dangerous — teens should never drive after drinking.

Defining A DUI

Though it can vary by state, the definition for driving under the influence typically refers to operating a vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol. However, some states separate drug impairment and alcohol impairment into two different categories (the other being “driving while intoxicated”). In addition, states may have different definitions for both “vehicle” and “driving.”

Defining “Vehicle”

When most people think of impaired driving, they think of someone in a car. However, it’s possible to receive a DUI while operating a variety of different vehicles. These include:

  • Motorcycles or scooters
  • Bicycles
  • Snowmobiles
  • Lawnmowers
  • Farm equipment
  • Golf carts
  • Horses or horse-drawn carriages
  • Boats, referred to as “boating under the influence”

Defining “Driving”

It’s possible for a teen to receive a DUI even if they weren’t driving. This can occur when someone is in “physical control” of the car, meaning they are in the driver’s seat and have the keys. If this person is intoxicated, it’s enough to qualify as a DUI in some states.

An impaired passenger could end up with a DUI if they touch the driver’s steering wheel. They can also be charged for other crimes, such as having an open container in the car. However, an impaired passenger cannot be given a DUI for simply being a passenger.

Defining “Under the Influence”

For people under the age of 21, driving under the influence could mean operating a vehicle with a BAC above .01. Due to zero tolerance laws throughout the country, underage drivers cannot have any alcohol in their system while driving. Even though they may not actually be impaired, they can still get a DUI.

Similar Charges to DUI

Terms related to impaired driving are often used interchangeably, but some states have clear distinctions for each. Most people often wonder about the differences between DUI vs. DWI (driving while intoxicated), as these charges are very similar. Here are the most common substance-related driving charges:

  • Driving under the influence (DUI): A DUI typically only refers to alcohol impairment
  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI): A DWI typically refers to alcohol impairment, drug impairment or both
  • Minor in possession (MIP): An MIP refers to the possession of alcohol while under the age of 21

Levels of DUI Charges

DUI penalties can range in severity, depending on the level of the driver’s impairment. These charges vary based on several factors, including the driver’s BAC, their age and the presence of underage passengers.

Driving With High Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

According to Florida law, a minor can be charged with a DUI for having a .02 BAC or higher. This is a misdemeanor offense that leads to fines, loss of license, participation in substance abuse programs and more. Subsequent DUIs bring harsher penalties, and a third DUI would be a felony charge.

If a person is driving impaired but still under the legal limit of .08 BAC, they can still be charged with DUI. Similarly, a person who is not impaired but has a BAC of at least .08 can receive a DUI.

Felony DUI

A driver can be charged with a felony DUI for multiple reasons, including:

  • Driving with a BAC of .15 or more
  • Driving under the influence with a passenger under the age of 18 (this age can vary based on state)
  • Driving under the influence with two prior DUIs

A felony DUI has long-lasting consequences that can affect a person’s chances of attaining housing, employment and more. In addition, the penalties include much steeper fines and the possibility of prison time.

If your teen is struggling with substance misuse, Next Generation Village is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about treatment plans and programs that can get your child back on the right track.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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