A Guide To Understanding Texas Zero Tolerance Law

Texas, like many states, has severe penalties for individuals who drive while intoxicated (DWI) and for a good reason. Nearly half of all DWI crashes in Texas involved an injury to either the driver or another person. Over a thousand people in Texas died in DWI crashes in 2017 alone.

When it comes to minors, Texas has a zero-tolerance policy for driving under the influence. Again, this is for a good reason.

Despite being a lower proportion of the population, individuals who were under 21 at the time of the accident made up a total of 64 out of the 944 deaths in 2017. As such, underage drivers can face up to 10 years in prison for repeated violations of the state’s zero-tolerance laws.

The Zero Tolerance Law

Texas has specific alcohol-related laws for minors. Under state law, it is illegal for any individual under the age of 21 to possess, purchase, or consume an alcoholic beverage.

For non-driving offenses, violation of this law is a Class C Misdemeanor, punishable by fines, community service, alcohol education, and driver’s license suspension.

However, when people talk about Texas’s zero tolerance law, they are usually referring to DUI charges involving a minor.

It is illegal for any individual under the age of 21 to drive a car or other motor vehicle on a public street while there is any detectable level of alcohol. Also, Texas punishes minors under its zero-tolerance law for piloting watercraft under the influence of alcohol. 

Detecting Violations

While drivers over the age of 21 must have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of more than 0.08%, that limit does not apply to minors. Instead, the standard for individuals under 21 is the mere presence of any detectable level of alcohol.

This means any alcohol detected by any means (including a breathalyzer or blood test) may result in a DUI charge for a minor. Additionally, according to Randall Isenberg, founding partner of the Law Offices of Randall B. Isenberg, “An officer may arrest a minor under the zero-tolerance law in Texas if he or she smells any alcohol on the driver or in the vehicle.”

Police officers in Texas have the right to stop any vehicle where there is either reasonable suspicion or probable cause that the driver is committing a driving offense.

If the officer then makes an arrest, state law requires minors under its implied consent laws to submit to either a breath or blood test, which is determined by the officer.

A failure to comply with a chemical test can result in jail time and a license suspension of 180 days for the first offense and two years for any additional violations.

Penalties for Violating the Zero Tolerance Law

Penalties for minors found violating Texas’ zero tolerance law vary based on the age of the individual at the time of the incident.

Drivers between the ages of 16 and 17 face penalties based on driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Between the ages of 17 and 21, drivers may instead face charges based on driving while driving intoxicated (DWI) at the discretion of the police officer or be charged with a DUI.

DUI by a Minor

The penalties for an individual between the ages of 16 and 21 vary based on how many times the person has been charged for the offense. The penalties include:

First offense:
This is a Class C Misdemeanor, requiring between 20 and 40 hours’ worth of community service, a fine of up to $500, and a license suspension between 60 and 180 days. The minor and their parents at the judge’s discretion must also attend an Alcohol Awareness course.

Second offense:
A second offense remains a Class C Misdemeanor, but some of the penalties increase. The community service range rises to 40 to 60 hours. The license suspension may now range from 120 days to two years.

Third or subsequent offense:
After the second offense, a violation of the DUI by a minor statute becomes Delinquent Conduct by Minor for 16 –21years of age offense. On top of the penalties for a second offense, third and subsequent violations of the DUI by a minor law can result in probation or being committed to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

DWI by a Minor

For drivers between the ages of 17 and 21, the penalties can be more severe, and at the discretion of the police officer, they may decide to increase the charge to DWI instead of DUI.

First offense:
This is a Class B Misdemeanor, which may result in a fine of up to $2,000 and a jail sentence between three and 180 days.  Drivers also face a one-year license suspension but may have it reduced to 90 days with community supervision and the installation of an ignition interlock device.

Judges do not have the discretion to waive the jail sentence or license suspension. However, if your first offense DWI has a blood or breath score higher than 0.15, you will be charged with a Class A misdemeanor with potential jail time.

Second offense:
A second offense is increased to a Class A Misdemeanor. The fine may now be up to $4,000. The required jail sentence is increased to between 30 days and one year, while the license suspension is now between 180 days and 18 months.

Third and subsequent offenses:
a third DWI by a minor is a Felony of the Third Degree. The potential fine for this offense could reach $10,000.

Drivers convicted of a third DWI by a minor will spend between two and ten years behind bars at a Texas state prison. Their driver’s license will also be suspended for a period between 180 days and two years. 

Charging Minors as Adults

To strengthen its laws and dissuade underage drinking and driving, Texas state law also allows minors to be tried as adults for DWI offenses.

This may be used in cases where considerable harm is done to another person, such as when a minor driver causes a car crash. In the case of a DWI crash causing the death of another person, Texas may choose to try a juvenile as an adult for intoxication manslaughter, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

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