Zero Tolerance Laws for Young Drivers


In general, a zero tolerance law is a law that imposes a penalty while allowing few or no defenses with the goal of diminishing undesirable behavior. In the context of operating a vehicle, a zero tolerance law imposes penalties on younger drivers who are found to be driving after consuming any amount of alcohol. The theory behind these laws is two-fold:

  • Minors are less likely than adults to be able to assess their own levels of impairment, and are more likely than adults to become impaired by alcohol even after small amounts of alcohol consumption;

  • It's already unlawful for minors to consume alcohol, and significant safety benefits may result from imposing zero tolerance penalties on minors based upon potentially dangerous behavior that is already prohibited.

Most jurisdictions with zero tolerance laws report that after the laws were passed they experienced a significant reduction in night-time accidents involving minor drivers, as well as in night-time accident-related fatalities for single vehicle accidents involving minors.

When Do Zero Tolerance Laws Apply

Zero tolerance laws apply to any person who is below the legal age for consumption of alcohol, so for purposes of these laws a minor is any person below the age of twenty-one.

Although the goal of the laws is to discourage minors from driving a vehicle after consuming any amount of alcohol, in many U.S. jurisdictions threshold at which the laws take effect is slightly above zero. They may instead impose a limit of 0.01 or, more often, 0.02. These limits are not intended to suggest that minors are okay to drive after one drink. Instead they are intended to make prosecution easier, for example, by permitting a conviction based upon the administration of a PTB (preliminary breath test) device result, even though that result would not ordinarily be admissible in an impaired driving prosecution. Many states are also concerned that if an officer must transport a minor to the police station for more accurate testing, the officer will be less likely to pursue a zero tolerance charge against a minor.

Defenses to a Zero Tolerance Driving Violation

Although zero tolerance laws are intended to offer few defenses, there are some defenses that a minor may nonetheless apply. Common defenses include:

  • Lack of Probable Cause - A minor may argue that the police encounter that led to the alcohol testing and zero tolerance charge was not supported by probable cause, or at some point became an excessive detention, and that the evidence of blood alcohol content was obtained as a result of that improper detention and should be excluded from evidence.

  • Margin of Error - Minor drivers can argue in any state that, after consideration of the margin of error of the testing device or method used to measure their blood alcohol, the result does not substantiate the claim that they had an unlawful level of blood alcohol. For example, if the minor's blood alcohol is measured as 0.01 on a device with a margin of error of +/1 0.01, the result indicates that the minor's blood alcohol level may be anything from 0.00 to 0.02, and the court must apply a presumption of innocence to find that such a result does not prove a positive blood alcohol level.

  • Testing Error - A minor may argue that the testing device was not properly maintained, calibrated and tested, that the blood alcohol test was not properly administered, or that a positive result resulted from something other than consumption of alcohol.

Refusal of Alcohol Testing by a Minor

Penalties for drunk driving offenses come in two forms: penalties imposed by courts following prosecution, and administrative penalties imposed by the state agency that issues driver's licenses.

If a minor refuses alcohol testing, zero tolerance laws normally require that the minor receive an administrative driver's license suspension for that refusal. In order to discourage test refusals, the administrative driver's license suspension that results from refusing a test is often significantly greater than the suspension that would follow a conviction.

What Are the Penalties for Violating a Zero Tolerance Law

In some states, zero tolerance laws are prosecuted as non-criminal offenses that carry administrative penalties. When charged as a civil (non-criminal) offense, the state normally has a lower burden of proof (preponderance of the evidence), but the minor has no risk of incarceration.

In states that have criminal zero tolerance laws, the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Either type of conviction will appear on a minor's driving record and may trigger significant increases in the cost of car insurance. Only criminal prosecutions will result in a criminal record.

Common penalties for a zero tolerance underage drinking offense include:

  • Incarceration - Some states with criminal zero tolerance laws provide that a minor may be jailed for violating a zero tolerance law, although incarceration is exceedingly rare for a first offense.

  • Fines and Court Assessments - A minor convicted of violating a zero tolerance law will be ordered to pay a fine and an assortment of court assessments.

  • Community Service - Some zero tolerance statutes permit the court to sentence the minor to perform community service.

  • Remedial Education - In many states the court may order the minor to attend an education class intended to teach the minor of the dangers of impaired driving. Even if that does not happen, many states require that minors whose drivers licenses are suspended for any reason take remedial education classes before they are eligible for reinstatement of their driving privileges.

Penalties for zero tolerance violations may increase for minors who have a prior conviction. Depending upon a minor's age, the minor may be prosecuted in juvenile court or as an adult. If convicted of any alcohol-related driving charge, including a zero tolerance offense, minor who is not licensed or has not yet obtained a full driver's license may have to meet additional requirements before qualifying for a license.

In addition to the penalties imposed under zero tolerance laws, many states also increase the penalties for minors convicted under other drunk and impaired driving laws. For example, an adult convicted of impaired driving may face an initial suspension of six months, but a minor driver may be subject to a much longer suspension or even to driver's license revocation.

What About Young Drivers With Higher Blood Alcohol Levels

Zero tolerance laws exist alongside ordinary impaired driving laws. If a young person is found to be impaired to the level that the state's laws of general application would apply, the minor can expect to be charged with that more serious offense. For example, the charge may be a driving while impaired charge that is based upon a significant impairment of the young driver's ability to safely operate a vehicle, or an unlawful blood alcohol level (UBAL) charge that is based on the young driver's having a blood alcohol level that exceeds the legal limit (0.08).

As zero tolerance laws are intended to discourage any operation of a vehicle by a minor who has consumed alcohol, they are not intended to provide a means by which an impaired driver who is below the legal drinking age may avoid more serious consequences. Many states include in their zero tolerance laws a provision that a minor charged with driving while impaired by or under the influence of alcohol may not plea bargain to the zero tolerance offense.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Oct 1, 2017.