Teen Drunk Driving: The Consequences of an Underage DUI

The penalties and real-life consequences of an underage DUI or zero-tolerance offense.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

To curb underage drunk driving, all states have "zero-tolerance" laws that apply to drivers who are under that age of 21. An underage DUI not only leads to legal consequences but also can negatively affect a young person's education and career opportunities.

Underage DUI Laws

Standard DUIs. In every state, a motorist—regardless of age—can be convicted of a standard DUI for driving while under the influence of (impaired by) drugs or alcohol or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more (a "per se" DUI). A standard DUI is generally a misdemeanor—which is considered a criminal offense in all states.

Zero-tolerance offenses. Motorists who are under the age of 21 are also subject to zero-tolerance laws. Zero-tolerance laws make it illegal for these younger motorists to drive with even a small amount of alcohol in their system. Depending on the state, the limit might be .03%, .02%, .01%, or any measurable amount of alcohol. (Get an estimate of how many drinks it takes.)

In some states, zero-tolerance violations are administrative offenses or infractions—neither of which are crimes. In other states, zero-tolerance offenses are misdemeanor crimes.

(Read more about underage DUI laws.)

Underage DUI Penalties

Underage DUI penalties depend on state law and the facts of the case. However, across the board, an underage DUI will lead to license suspension. In many cases, the underage offender will also be looking at:

  • fines ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars
  • up to a year in jail
  • community service
  • substance abuse classes or treatment, and/or
  • having to install an ignition interlock device (IID).

The penalties for an underage DUI or zero-tolerance offense are generally less severe than those for a standard DUI. But remember, being underage doesn't shield you from being convicted of a standard DUI.

College and University Applications, Scholarships, and Financial Aid

Applications and scholarships. Some college and scholarship applications specifically ask if you've ever been convicted of a crime. Misdemeanor convictions are considered crimes, whereas infractions and administrative offenses typically are not. So, if you have an underage DUI offense on your record, you should check to see if the offense is considered a crime in your state. However, a DUI conviction generally won't disqualify you for a scholarship or admission to a university—it's just among the factors that get considered.

Financial aid. Lots of college and university students receive federal and state financial aid. Every state has its own eligibility criteria for student aid. So, whether a DUI conviction will affect the state aid your receive just depends on your state's rules. However, a DUI conviction won't affect your eligibility for federal financial aid. When you apply for federal financial aid—by submitting a "FAFSA" (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)—you have to report drug possession and sales convictions but not DUIs. (Read more about how a DUI can affect student financial aid.)

Honor codes. Colleges and universities typically have honor codes that require students to abide by certain standards of conduct. Criminal activity—including driving under the influence—usually violates these honor codes. However, a violation of the honor code won't necessarily get you booted out of school. For first violations, universities often employ less serious measures such as a formal warning or community service.

Career Opportunities

It's fairly common for employers to perform background checks on prospective employees. And an underage DUI conviction that qualifies as a criminal offense typically will show up on a background check. But for most jobs, it's probably rare that an underage DUI conviction would take you out of the running, particularly if the conviction occurred a number years in the past.

Getting Legal Help

Anytime you're arrested for a DUI (or any other crime) it's important to get in touch with a qualified attorney. For underage DUIs, it's also imperative that you communicate to your attorney any concerns you might have about how a conviction might affect your education, financial aid, or career opportunities.

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