All states limit the use of alcohol by young people under the age of 21, and teenagers under the age of 21 are allowed to drive with a permit or a license. To encourage minors to follow the alcohol restrictions while driving, many states have so-called zero tolerance laws targeting drinking and driving by those under the age of 21. Texas is among the states with a zero tolerance law, although it is not the only law that can apply to young people driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Texas DWI Laws
Texas DWI laws, found at the state's Penal Code Section 49, make it a crime for a person of any age to drive while intoxicated (DWI). Intoxication is defined as a driver whose normal faculties are impaired by alcohol or drugs, legal or illegal, or as a driver who has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or more. A DWI based on the driver having a BAC over the limit is termed a "per se" DWI, and no further evidence of impairment is required.
A person's BAC is determined by use of a chemical test. Under Texas law, breath tests taken with the familiar breathalyzer device, blood tests and urine tests are permitted. Under state law, anyone who drives on Texas roads is deemed to consent to take a chemical test if arrested for a DWI. Refusal to do so carries its own penalties and also increases the penalties for a DWI conviction.
Drivers under the age of 21 can also be arrested for, and convicted of, a DWI if their BAC is 0.08 percent or above. However, special drinking/driving laws apply to minors that make it an offense to drive with a much lower BAC.
Drunk Driving Laws for Under 21s
All states make it illegal for those under 21 years of age to drink and drive, although this was not always the case. After the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, lowering the legal voting age from 21 to 18 years, most states also lowered the legal drinking age, with only 14 keeping it at 21.
This changed in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. It did not set the age at 21, but limited the distribution of federal transportation funds to only those states that made 21 their minimum age for purchasing and publicly possessing alcohol. All states ultimately complied, including Texas, and increased their drinking/driving age to 21 as well. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, raising the drinking/driving age has decreased drinking by minors, and motor vehicle accidents have also decreased.
Texas Zero Tolerance and Implied Consent Laws
Under Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code Section 106 and following, it is illegal for a minor – defined as a person under the age of 21 – to try to buy, actually buy, import, consume or possess alcohol with limited exceptions. It is also illegal for a minor to operate a motor vehicle or a watercraft after having consumed alcohol.
The statute provides that if there is any detectable amount of alcohol in a minor driver's system, they have violated the law, even though they may not be legally intoxicated. This is known as the zero tolerance law. A breach of the law is called a DUI, which stands for driving under the influence, or a DUIA, which stands for driving under the influence of alcohol. Underage drivers are also deemed to consent to chemical tests and are guilty of refusal if they decline to be tested.
Zero Tolerance DUI Process
The process for a Texas minor to get a DUI is pretty similar to the process for a Texas adult to get a DWI. A police officer spots a motor vehicle being driven erratically or breaking traffic laws and pulls the driver over for a traffic violation. The officer inspects the driver's license and sees that they are a minor.
If the law enforcement officer smells alcohol or sees anything that gives them reason to believe the driver has been drinking, the driver may be arrested and taken to the station for a breathalyzer test. If the test shows any detectable amount of alcohol in the minor's system, they are charged with a DUI. If the test shows that the minor has a BAC of 0.08 percent or above, they will be charged with a DWI.
Administrative Penalties for DUI
Penalties for breach of the zero tolerance law are much more lenient than penalties for a DWI, but getting a DUI can also have serious consequences. Minor drivers will face both administrative and criminal penalties.
Generally, following a first arrest for violation of the zero tolerance law in Texas, the young driver will have their license suspended administratively for 60 days for a first offense, 120 for a second offense and 180 for a third offense. A minor has the right to seek a hearing if they believe they can disprove any element of the case. It is heard by an administrative law judge, and, if the minor is successful, their suspension can be overturned.
If the minor refuses to take a chemical test, they are guilty of refusal. The administrative penalty is also suspension of the driver's license. For a first refusal, the driver's license revocation is 180 days; for a subsequent refusal, the driver may lose driving privileges administratively for up to two years.
Criminal Penalties for DUI
As is the case with a DWI, penalties for a DUI depend on the driver's prior record. Generally, a first conviction is a Class C misdemeanor. Penalties, in addition to the driver's license suspension, include a fine up to $500, 20 to 40 hours of community service and attendance at an alcohol awareness course. The course may also be mandated for the minor's parents. For subsequent offenses, community service time can be between 40 and 60 hours.
Penalties for a DWI Charge
A minor can be arrested for a DUI if a chemical test shows any alcohol in their system at all. What happens if the chemical test establishes that the minor is actually intoxicated under the terms of the Texas statute for adults? That is, what happens if the minor's BAC is 0.08 percent or higher?
If the minor's BAC exceeds the legal limit for a DWI, the minor can be charged with a DWI. In this case, the criminal penalties are much more serious – the same penalties apply as to an adult. That means that penalties also rise depending on the number of prior convictions.
For a first DWI conviction, the minor will face fines up to $2,000, potential jail time ranging from 72 hours to six months, probation that includes community service and mandatory DWI school and loss of license for up to two years. Fines for a second offense can be up to $4,000, and potential jail time will run from 30 days to 365 days.
A third offense is a felony, the more serious type of crime. While a misdemeanor cannot be punished by more than a year in jail, a felony conviction can be punished by over a year in prison. A third DWI can be punished by between two and 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
- Texas Penal Code: Section 49.40 Driving While Intoxicated
- Texas DOT: Driving Under the Influence
- Texas DPS: Alcohol Laws for Minors
- Harron Law: Difference Between DUI and DWI in Texas
- Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code: Section 106.041 Driving or Operating Watercraft Under the Influence of Alcohol by Minor
- Britannica: History of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age
- CDC: Age 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.