Can You Get a DUI From the Passenger Seat?
Permitted Drivers and Drunk Supervisors
Picture this scene. You’re at a SoCal family dinner party. The party ends a little early, you’ve had a few too many alcoholic beverages, and know you shouldn’t drive drunk.
You consult your Uber and Lyft apps, but the wait is going to be extensive. Your mind logically travels to your 16-year-old, who has a valid learner’s permit.
You reflect on all the interrupted sleep they caused you, the nights spent worrying when they were sick, and all the homework you helped with after dinner. You start to think about your kid as a responsible young person, someone who is capable and aware, and you ask yourself the question: Surely, they can drive us home safely? What could be the harm?
A Legal Gray Area for Supervisor Drivers in California
Teenage drivers can have absolutely no alcohol or drug in their systems while they are driving because they are under the legal age of majority. Additionally, if driving a vehicle with passengers, they must be supervised by a licensed parent, guardian, or other adult over the age of 25. But can you, the adult, be drunk while in the passenger’s seat?
There’s currently no specific law in California against it, and that is something that hasn’t changed since the question first hit headlines nearly two decades ago.
“Although there is no specific law against mom or dad being dead drunk with a teenage driver at the wheel, police take a pretty dim view of the practice, and say that in the case of an accident they would try to find a way to file charges against the supervising adult,” according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times article.
But why the legal murkiness, particularly in population-concentrated states like California and New York?
“It’s speculated that having an intoxicated supervisory driver is preferable to having a drunk driver on the roads,” according to Asheville DWI Lawyers, who note the stiffer penalties and clearer laws in North Carolina, including: “If a parent or other licensed person who is sitting in the passenger seat while supervising a driver with a learner’s permit is found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol…The supervising adult may be charged with a DUI or similar offense and potentially face equivalent to those had they been in the driver’s seat and been under the influence.”
Buzard Family Tragedy in New York Leads to “Abbagail’s Law”
A proposed New York bill titled Abbagail’s Law prohibits “supervising drivers from acting under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and subjects them to criminal charges,” according to The new York State Senate. Despite repeated attempts, the bill has never passed the Assembly.
“The history of the bill goes back to 2009, after an intoxicated man … convinced his 17-year-old cousin to drive with a learner’s permit to the store to get more alcohol. Two children were put into car seats in the backseat, and his 8-year-old [Abbbagail] was seated on the lap of a 14-year-old,” according to Rochester First.
The teenage driver was speeding and lost control of the vehicle, causing Abbagail to be thrown from the vehicle. She then became trapped underneath it, as it rolled down an embankment.
The bill argued that Abbagail’s dad should have faced harsher legal penalties from the case.
The case forced the issue into the national spotlight and spurred discussion and legislation, although that legislation has stalemated in many states, including California and New York.
Use Caution in California
California annually issues hundreds of thousands of provisional licenses (learning permits) to underage drivers, so it’s not a leap to believe some parents might attempt to use their new freedom to get behind the wheel.
Still, it’s important to know that this isn’t a practice that police take kindly to, and if your teenager is pulled over while you’re supervising drunk or something happens, they will find any and all possible charges to throw at you.
When you’re making that call between waiting 45 minutes for an Uber or letting your 16-year-old drive, remember that it’s murky legal area and that it might be good to err on the side of caution.
And if your teenager is pulled over while you’re supervising after drinking, it’s important to find the most experienced and best attorneys in Southern California, especially ones specializing in DUI law.
As we stated in a previous blog: On the surface, it seems that the spirit of the current law in ensuring the safety of the minor driver and other drivers on the road could be extended by interpreting the law to mean “sober” supervisors.
On the other hand, one possible reason for delays in places like California and New York is that legislators are reluctant to punish people for attempting to avoid driving drunk themselves. However, it’s important to remember that law enforcement and legislators may view things differently in this situation. Particularly since police officers often see the aftermath of accidents.
Talk To A DUI Defense Attorney
An experienced attorney can evaluate your case and discuss your options with you. A lawyer serving DUI clients will often offer a free no obligation consultation and everything discussed is protected by the attorney client relationship.
Schedule a free consultation with one of our expert California DUI attorneys here.
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