Law and Policy

In all fifty states, it is illegal for a person to drive when his or her blood alcohol content level reaches 0.08%. The power to determine and impose penalties on drivers who violate traffic laws belongs to the state. In general, the minimum punishment for convicted drunk drivers is the automatic loss of their licenses for a period of time determined by each state. Additionally, some states impose short jail sentences for first-time convicts. The law in most states requires that offenders complete some type of treatment program.

In addition to these general punishments regarding driving under the influence, a large number of states have specific laws geared toward dealing with various aspects of drunk driving. For example, many states have an anti-plea bargaining policy which prohibits the reduction of alcohol-related offenses to that of a non-alcohol related crime. There is also the child endangerment policy, which imposes a separate charge or increases in the severity of the penalty for driving under the influence with child in the vehicle.

Oftentimes, the punishment for someone convicted of drunk driving depends on the driver’s conviction history. Penalties are also steeper for drivers with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.15% or higher, which is part of the enhanced penalty BAC level law.

Alcohol-impaired drivers are a severe risk not only to themselves, but to other drivers. When charged with driving under the influence or any crime related to it, impairment due to alcohol or other drugs is never accepted as a defense. Sometimes it can be used as a partial defense, which tends to be the case when a driver is charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter. In this event, if the driver’s impairment level is so severe that his or her intent to kill is affected, then alcohol impairment can be used as a way to lessen the crime to involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. However, this defense is rarely successful.

In many states, a zero tolerance law applies to underage drinking. This means that it is illegal for people under the legal age to drive with a blood alcohol content level of anything but 0.0%. Currently, 46 states have lower BAC levels for younger drivers. Additionally, 44 states have set their illegal BAC levels for drivers under 21 to 0.02% and higher in order to allow for variation in alcohol testing instruments.

As part of the zero tolerance law, police officers have the right to require a breath test from drivers under the age of 21 if the officer has reason to believe that the driver is under the influence of alcohol. Drivers who refuse to submit to such a test or who register an illegal BAC level are subject to legal consequences, such as losing their driver’s licenses.

Having an open alcoholic beverage container inside of a vehicle is illegal. In some states, it is only illegal for the driver to have an open container, but in others it is illegal for either the passenger or driver to have one.

Some states allow an offender to posses a hardship license while his or her driver’s license is suspended. This means that an offender is allowed certain driving privileges, like driving to work, if there is a legitimate excuse, (e.g., being the family’s primary earner).