Underage Drivers in California

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Underage Drivers in California

Underage drivers in California are those drivers under the age of 21. California teenagers can apply for a learner’s permit when they reach the age of 15-and-a-half, but they must complete an approved driver’s education course.

Such courses, with 25 hours of instruction, are offered by a state-licensed driver’s education school.

Once teenagers reach the age of 16, they can apply for a provisional license that carries restrictions, but only after they have completed the driver’s education program.

In other cases, 14-year-old teenagers with certain hardships can apply for a junior permit that allows them to drive to school, work, or to the family business, particularly if there is an illness in the family.

Go here to find out more about getting your first license.

California Vehicle Code § 23136

Underage drivers (under 21) cannot drive with any alcohol in their system.  They also cannot drive with either legal or illegal drugs in their system, including over-the-counter (OTC) medications.  Additionally, even though marijuana is legal in California for some people under the age of 21 if they have their parent’s permission, it is still not legal for them to drive while under the influence of marijuana.  

If an underage driver is tested and found to have 0.01% (or more) of alcohol in his or her system, the driver may be charged with a criminal offense and have their driver’s license suspended for one year.

Especially in a teenager’s life, having a suspended license for a year is a very long time. If subsequent violations occur before the underage driver reaches age 21, the driver will have a longer suspension term applied to their license.

When Taking OTC Drugs

Drivers of any age should always check the ingredients on over-the-counter drugs, such as cough syrup, cold and allergy pills, or any drug that could possibly register as alcohol in the breath or in the blood or could impair their driving in any way.  

Some drugs will also make you drowsy, and you do not want to take those either. If you are going to drive anywhere, do not take any medication at all so you can stay safe and keep other drivers on the road safe.

Underage drivers, by the very fact of obtaining a driver’s license, must always submit to whatever tests a peace officer requests of the driver.

The tests given to an underage driver in California are either a breath test or a blood test.  Refusing to take either test if requested by law-enforcement could result in the driver losing their license for one year.  

A Common Scenario

Anthony Johnson (not his real name), 18, had been in school classes all day and had been suffering from the onset symptoms of a cold or flu.

About three hours before leaving school, he found some of his cold pills he had taken last year for a head cold that had really affected him.  

The pills were not in a box, so he could not check any warning labels.  But he was sure he would be okay with taking them anyway.  

After school was over, Anthony ran to his car, eager to get home to take a quick nap before tackling his homework.

He felt a little sleepy but did not think anything of it.

He drove the car at what he thought was normal speed, but he was also eager to get home.

He stopped at the light one block before he would be turning onto his home street. Then he noticed a police car with its lights on sitting behind him.

Anthony turned right and pulled over, the police car right on his tail.

After checking Anthony’s identification, the officer had him take a breathalyzer test, and his BAC percent was 0.02.

Joseph could not understand why there was any percentage at all, but then he remembered he had taken a swig of cough syrup that he had stashed in his locker.  

Joseph’s license was later unfortunately suspended for a year.

What Happens If You Get an Under-21 DUI in California?

An underage DUI in California has tremendous consequences. The severity of the consequences depends on the nature of the charges brought against the underage driver. The underage driver faces stiffer penalties than an adult would because of the driver’s age. However, a driver under 21 in California who gets a DUI still faces jail time, fines, probation, and a license suspension, just like an adult would face for a first-offense DUI. 

The penalties for a first-offense DUI in California may include:

  • Six months’ of incarceration in the county jail; 
  • Three to five years of misdemeanor probation with driver education classes; 
  • A fine between $390 and $1,000 (not counting much higher penalty assessments in most counties); and 
  • License suspension. The penalties increase with the severity of the criminal act.

The underage driver could face the same penalties an adult would face for driving with a BAC of 0.08 or greater, known as the “legal limit,” driving under the influence of alcohol, or driving under the influence of drugs. Additionally, an underage driver could face a prison sentence for injuring or killing another person while under the influence.

What Is California’s Zero Tolerance Law?

Section 23136 of California’s Vehicle Code is California’s zero tolerance law. Section 23136 is clear: a person under 21 shall not drive a motor vehicle after consuming any appreciable amount of alcohol as measured by a chemical test, such as a breathalyzer, blood, or urine test, or a preliminary alcohol screening test. An underage driver will receive an infraction for driving with a blood- or breath-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.01 or more. 

Subsection (b) of 23136 indicates that the underage driver is guilty of the offense if the driver consumed an alcoholic beverage that resulted in a positive result. 

The rationale supporting the law makes legal sense. The legal drinking age in California is 21. Therefore, no person under 21 years of age should consume any alcoholic beverages whatsoever. Underage drivers who drink alcohol endanger themselves and everyone else on the road, considering that a person under 21 usually has minimal driving experience. Alcohol consumption enhances the underage driver’s inexperience. 

A police officer only needs to have reasonable cause to demand that a driver under 21 in California submit to a chemical test. Section 23136 states that an underage driver gives their consent to a preliminary alcohol screening or chemical test by driving on California roads. 

The officer must inform the driver that the state (via the DMV) will suspend the person’s driver license for at least one year for refusing the test. However, the suspension could last up to three years. 

Getting an under-21 DUI in California with a BAC of 0.05% or More

California’s Zero-Tolerance Law works in conjunction with California Vehicle Code section 23140. Section 23140 punishes an underage driver for operating a vehicle with a BAC of 0.05% or more. An underage motorist caught driving with a BAC of 0.05% or more faces a license suspension of at least one year, mandatory attendance at a driver educational program, and a fine not to exceed $100. 

What Happens at a DUI Arraignment in California?

Getting an under-21 DUI in San Diego County means facing a judge in court at an arraignment. If the driver is under 18, then they will face the judge in juvenile court.  If the driver is age 18, 19, or 20, they will face a judge in adult criminal court.  

You should have an experienced and knowledgeable San Diego County defense attorney with you at your arraignment to advise you and protect your constitutional rights. 

An arraignment is a formal proceeding where the accused stands before the court and listens to the charges brought by the prosecuting authority. The accused will enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. A San Diego County DUI defense attorney will explain to you the choices and the implications of the plea.

The prosecution may offer a plea deal early in the case to resolve it without pursuing the charges for a lengthy amount of time. The accused can decline the offer and proceed toward trial or negotiate with the prosecution. The court could set a trial date or provide interim dates so that the accused could review the evidence, such as police reports and test results, with his or her attorney.

How Long Does a DUI Stay on One’s Driving Record?

A DUI remains on a person’s driving record in California for 10 years. Fortunately, driving records in California are not included in many standard background checks; however, at times private investigators can indeed find such convictions. 

Why Choose a San Diego County DUI Defense Attorney? 

Underage DUI charges in California could have severe implications on a young person’s life. Losing a driver license due to getting a DUI under 21 in San Diego County is an obstacle that should be avoided if at all possible. If you or your child faces a DUI while under 21 in California, the compassionate, experienced, and knowledgeable San Diego County DUI defense lawyers with the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, are here to help. Contact us today at 619-234-2300 to schedule a free consultation.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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