You would expect this to be an easy question to answer. But that is not the case. Most of us have some idea of what happens when an adult is arrested for drunk driving, but it is much more complicated when the person in under 21. To start with, throughout the US, drinking and driving by anyone is prohibited, and possession of alcohol is illegal for those under age 21. That is where the similarities end.

Knowing what happens to someone under age 21 who is picked up for DWI/DUI is very complicated because the youth can potentially be charged with two alcohol-related offenses – possession and driving – each of which may be handled by different courts.

Easy Cases

Kids who cannot legally drive (under 16 in most states) who are picked up for DWI/DUI are usually handled in juvenile courts as a general delinquency case.

Young adults 21 and over arrested for DUI/DWI are always handled in adult courts.

Hard Cases

Where the answer to this question becomes very gray is in the wide variation across states, counties, cities, and towns when a high school aged (16-17) or college aged kid (18-20) is picked up for drinking and driving. For example, in only 3 states all legal drivers who are arrested for DWI/DUI are handled the same way, while in 5 states all persons under 21 arrested for drunk driving are processed in juvenile court. In the remaining states, there is little consensus about how under-aged drinking and driving is addressed in the courts. There is even dramatic variation from county to county in some states.

Blood alcohol content (BAC) defines levels of drunk driving. All states set .08 as the “legal limit” but make exceptions for some groups of drivers such as those under 21 or 18. These are often in the form of lower legal limits such as .02 or “zero tolerance” laws for drivers under 21 who are not legally allowed to consume alcohol anyway.

Learning More

PRA is working on a study to drill down and find out if there is any consistency across the U.S. on how young drunk drivers are handled in the courts. Maybe kids are informally being given a break from the serious legal outcomes of drinking and driving when no injury has resulted. Maybe raising the legal drinking age to 21 has lead to confusion about when a youth becomes a responsible adult -18 or 21? One fact is known: we don’t know how U.S. courts deal with young drunk drivers. Stay tuned – our research funded by the National Institute of Justice will shine light on this subject over the next few months.