In California, drivers under 21 face very different DUI laws than drivers who are 21+. A 21+ driver has a certain amount of leeway in driving with alcohol in their system—as long as their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is less than .08%, and they aren’t showing signs of impairment, they usually cannot be convicted of DUI. But California has adopted a “Zero Tolerance” rule for drivers who are under 21 years of age. These younger drivers face much higher standards than adults do.
The main areas that are different for underage drivers are:
- The rules for breath tests
- The “legal limit” for having alcohol in their system
- License suspension rules
- The penalties they face
We’ll cover each of these areas in detail below.
How are DUI breath test rules different for drivers under 21?
The first step of most DUI investigations is to ask the driver to take a breath test. Officers can do this during a traffic stop with a portable device known as a PAS. If you were 21 years of age or older, you could decline to take this test and there is no penalty. If you are under 21, however, the test is mandatory. If an officer requests that you take it, you must submit.
If you refuse the roadside breath test, you will face an automatic 1-year suspension of your drivers license. If you end up convicted of DUI, the license suspension will be even longer.
What is the legal limit for drivers under 21?
For adults, the “legal limit” is .08% BAC. But there is no legal limit for drivers under 21. Because of the state’s Zero Tolerance law, it is illegal for you to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in your system. If you take the PAS breath test and blow even a .01%—the smallest amount of alcohol it can record—you are in violation of the law.
Just because there is alcohol in your system doesn’t mean you’ll be convicted of a full DUI. But you will automatically face a 1-year suspension of your driver’s license from the DMV, and potentially other penalties as well.
How long will an underage DUI driver’s license be suspended?
The license suspension period is much longer if you are under 21. An adult driver typically only loses their license if they are arrested on a DUI charge, and they may only have it suspended for 4 months or so if this is their first offense. But an underage driver loses their license for at least 1 year, and you can lose it for several reasons:
- 1 year suspension for having any alcohol in your system, even if it’s not a DUI conviction
- 1 year suspension for refusing the PAS test
- A 2-3 year suspension if you are convicted of both DUI and refusing the test
This 1-year suspension is a “hard” suspension, which means you cannot apply for a restricted drivers license to go to school or your job. You cannot drive at all until the suspension period is over and your license is reinstated.
What penalties does a driver face for DUI under 21?
The penalties for underage DUI are complicated. If your BAC is .08% or above, and you are convicted of a full DUI, you face the same penalties as an adult (no matter what your age). For a first offender this includes up to 6 months in jail, 3 months of DUI school, 3-5 years of probation, the license suspension, and thousands of dollars in fines and fees. Your DUI conviction can also affect college admissions and job applications.
When you’re under 21, however, you can face penalties even without the full DUI conviction. These penalties are based on your BAC:
- If your BAC is .01% to .05%, you will face a traffic infraction and the 1-year suspension of your license
- If your BAC is .05% to .07%, you face the same infraction and suspension, plus 3 months of DUI school, and possibly a mandatory session at the coroner’s office designed to scare you out of driving drunk.
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