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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

DUI Charges Against PA Sober, Designated Driver

by | Sep 15, 2015 | DUI


In Pennsylvania, DUI charges can be filed against sober young people, as a teen recently found out the hard way in Northampton County. Over Labor Day weekend this year, a 19 year old male was stopped at a DUI checkpoint. His SUV was packed with nine other students, whom he was ferrying back to DeSales University after the group had attended a party at nearby Lehigh University. The over-packed car was a Motor Vehicle Code violation in and of itself, made immeasurably worse by the fact that the designated driver had consumed a modest amount of alcohol. According to police, the designated driver’s BAC was a mere .02. Although this suggests he had only one drink or had quit drinking hours ago, it is still enough to trigger a DUI in Pennsylvania if the driver is less than 21 years of age.

The normal BAC cut-off in Pennsylvania is .08, however, the normal BAC levels do not apply to minors in Pennsylvania. Since a 1996 amendment to the DUI law, the legal limit for minors has been .02, which is the same for commercial drivers who are behind the wheel in their occupational capacity.
A minor with a BAC between .02 and .08 is charged with a “middle tier DUI,” punishable by a mandatory minimum of 48 hours in jail followed by six months of parole, a one year driver’s license suspension, a $500 fine and massive court costs. This is the same penalty that an adult driver would receive for a BAC between .10 and .159. To add insult to injury, a minor DUI defendant may also face an additional driver’s license suspension for underage drinking, as underage drinking does not merge for sentencing purposes with DUI.

This case is one example of the many absolutely absurd criminal laws in Pennsylvania. This young man was trying to do the right thing by remaining sober, as the rest of the group presumably imbibed. Had he drunk enough to raise his BAC to between a .10 and .159, he would be facing the exact same DUI sentence as he currently is with a BAC suggesting he may have had only one drink! Thus, if a young person has one beer before driving, he might as well have eight, because the penalty is going to be the same anyway. This creates what economists call a “perverse incentive.”

A 19 year old with a low BAC like .02 is no more dangerous to pedestrians and other drivers than someone over 21 with the same BAC. If the young driver is not charged with DUI, it is not as if he escapes scot free. He will still be charged with underage drinking, which carries a mandatory driver’s license suspension of anywhere between 90 days and two years depending on the number of prior offenses, and the summary offense of Minor Prohibited from Operating Motor Vehicle with any Alcohol in System. DUI charges should be reserved for people who are actually drunk or intoxicated on some other drug. No sober person should ever be charged with DUI, regardless of age.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. Over the years, he has represented countless students charged with DUI.

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