California DUI Under 21 DUI Guide

Any charge of driving under the influence (DUI) in California can have serious consequences. The impact of a DUI on driving privileges is even more severe for a driver who has not reached the age of 21. Those drivers also face restrictions that do not apply to older drivers. This article discusses the common DUI-related offenses and potential penalties faced by drivers who are 21 or younger.

How California’s Zero Tolerance Laws Affect You

California law does not permit any person under the age of 21 to consume alcohol. It also prohibits drivers who have not reached the age of 21 from driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) that is higher than 0.01. A male who weighs 220 pounds or less will probably reach 0.01 after consuming a single 12 ounce bottle of beer.

While the intent of California’s “zero tolerance” law is to prevent underage drivers from driving if they have any alcohol in their blood, section 23136 of the Vehicle Code makes it unlawful for a person under the age of 21 to drive with a BAC of 0.01 or higher. The 0.01 threshold protects individuals from prosecution who had a sip of wine during a religious ceremony or consumed a dose of Nyquil or some other cold remedy that contains alcohol. If your BAC is 0.01 or higher, however, it does not matter whether it resulted from an alcoholic beverage or from a medicine.

While the “zero tolerance” law falls under the umbrella of DUI, it is not necessary to prove that you were “under the influence.” Even drinkers without experience are not appreciably impaired by a BAC of 0.01. The effect of alcohol consumption on your ability to drive safely has no bearing on the enforcement of “zero tolerance” laws. The examination result is all that really matters.

If you are under the age of 21 and an officer stops you while driving and asks you to take a preliminary breath test, your license can be suspended for one year if the result is 0.01 or higher. If the result is at least 0.01 but less than 0.05, that suspension will be the only penalty for your violation.

If you “fail” by registering 0.01 or higher, the officer will take your license and will give you some documents. One of the papers you receive is called a “Suspension/Revocation Order and Temporary Driver License.” That document will allow you to drive for 30 days. At the end of the 30 day period, your license suspension will take effect unless you request an Administrative Suspension Hearing. That procedure is discussed in more detail below.

When You Have a BAC of 0.05 or Higher

If you are 21 years old or older, the “legal limit” is 0.08. While the effective “legal limit” is 0.01 if you are under 21, additional penalties apply if your BAC is at least 0.05 but less than 0.08.

A violation of California’s “underage DUI” law is an infraction rather than a crime. That means you will not face jail time if you are convicted of the offence. In addition to your license suspension you can face:

  • A fine of $100 (or more for a second or subsequent offense);
  • Mandatory attendance at an alcohol education program; and
  • Vehicle impoundment if you have a prior conviction.

Unlike the “zero tolerance” law, a “DUI Under 21” charge is prosecuted in court. Unless you default by failing to act, you can demand a trial. A lawyer can help you defend against the accusation.

When You Have a BAC of 0.08 or Higher

Being under 21 does not protect you from being prosecuted for the same driving under the influence laws that apply to drivers over the age of 21. Any driver who drives with a BAC of 0.08 or higher can be prosecuted for a crime. A first offense is a misdemeanor. The one year license suspension required by the “zero tolerance” law is longer than a driver who is 21 or older would receive. Additional penalties include:

  • A maximum fine of $1,000.
  • Informal probation for up to five years.
  • Required participation in an alcohol education program.
  • Up to 6 months in custody.

Harsher penalties apply to subsequent convictions.

The Importance of Proof of Impairment

Most alcohol-related driving offenses are based on chemical test results. If you refused a test, if results are unavailable for some other reason, or if you tested less than 0.08, you can still be prosecuted for operating a vehicle while under the influence. A driving under the influence charge requires proof that, as the result of consuming alcohol, your ability to drive safely was impaired.

Prosecutors usually try to prove driving under the influence by introducing evidence of bad driving, such as weaving or failing to avoid an accident. Additional evidence might include poor performance on field sobriety exams or an officer’s observations of your difficulty maintaining your balance, your slurred speech, your glassy eyes, or other indications that you were not sober.

The penalties for DUI are the same as those for driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Driving with a prohibited BAC is simply a method of proving DUI that does not require proof of impairment.

If You Refused The Test

If you refuse to take the preliminary screening examination, your license will also be suspended for one year (or longer if you have a prior alcohol-related driving conviction). Your vehicle may also be impounded for at least five days.

If you are arrested for an alcohol-related driving offense, you may be asked to submit to an additional chemical test of your breath or blood. The same penalties apply to refusing that test.

If you refuse, you will receive documents advising you of your right to a hearing to challenge the allegation that you refused it. Common defenses raised at refusal hearings are:

  • The police stopped your vehicle without having a reasonable suspicion that you violated a traffic regulation or committed a crime.
  • The police requested an examination without having a reasonable belief that you had consumed alcohol.
  • The police did not give you the required explanation of your obligation to take the test or the consequences of refusing it.
  • You did not refuse to take it but the officer misinterpreted your statements or conduct as a refusal.
  • You tried to take it but a medical condition (such as asthma) prevented you from completing it successfully.

You will have a much better chance of prevailing at a refusal hearing if an appropriate defense is selected and presented by an experienced DUI defense attorney.

How Your Driver’s License is Affected

You do not need to be convicted of a DUI in court to experience the consequences of DUI laws, including the “zero tolerance” law. Your license to operate a vehicle can be suspended merely because your result was 0.01 or higher.

The Suspension/Revocation Order that the officer gives you will have instructions for requesting an Administrative Suspension Hearing. You need to request the hearing within 10 days. The address to which the request must be sent will be printed on the Suspension/Revocation Order.

If you request a hearing, the suspension will not go into effect until the hearing is held. The hearing is conducted by the DMV, not by a court. You will have a better chance of prevailing at the hearing if you are represented by a lawyer. Defenses commonly raised to an administrative suspension are:

  • The officer did not have legal justification for stopping you.
  • The officer had no legal justification for asking you to submit to a test.
  • The officer had not followed proper procedures.

Arguments can also be made about the accuracy of the results, but those are unlikely to prevail unless your test was only slightly above the 0.01 threshold. In any event, an experienced DUI lawyer can tell you whether you should contest an administrative suspension. Contact our Expert California DUI Attorney today for a free consultation.