Zero Tolerance and Alcohol Laws

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Zero tolerance is the practice of adopting laws or policies that call for mandatory enforcement of violations without regard to severity, intent or extenuating circumstances.

Fundamentally, zero tolerance laws and policies impose a penalty or consequence on all violations and infractions without any subjective judgment of the action or behavior.

As it pertains to driving under the influence, zero tolerance refers to laws that make it illegal for persons under age 21 to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system.

Prior to zero tolerance laws, most states had drunk driving laws that established legal limits for blood-alcohol content that applied to all drivers regardless of age.

If a teenaged driver was drinking and driving, but had a BAC of under 0.08, for example, they were not guilty of driving under the influence. Depending on state law, they may be guilty of consuming or being in possession of alcohol underage, but not guilty of DUI.

History of Zero Tolerance Laws

Because drivers under the age of 21 are more likely to be involved in fatal vehicular crashes if they have been drinking than people over 21, the U.S. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984 that forced states to raise the legal drinking age to age 21.

By 1988, all 50 states had raised the legal drinking age to 21 and that laid the groundwork for the passage of zero tolerance laws.

Illegal to Drink, Illegal to Drive

The idea behind zero-tolerance laws is because it is illegal for people under that age of 21 to drink alcohol, it should, therefore, be illegal for them to operate a vehicle while drinking any amount of alcohol.

All 50 states have now passed zero-tolerance laws that penalize underage drinkers for operating a motor vehicle with BAC levels as low as .01 or .02. In fact, in most states, an underage drinker can be charged with a DUI with a BAC level of .00 if the arresting officer smells alcohol on the driver.

Zero Tolerance for Other Situations

Zero tolerance can apply to other situations as well. Some states have zero-tolerance laws regarding riding in a vehicle with an open container. Regardless of how the opened alcohol container got there, how long it has been there, or who it belongs to, the law enforcement officer is compelled to take action if he observes an open container in the vehicle.

Many school districts have passed zero-tolerance policies regarding weapons and drugs on campus. Students can be expelled or suspended from school for having any type of weapon or any type of medication in their possession. No mitigating or extenuating circumstances are considered zero-tolerance means zero.

Of course, in reality, there are going to arise situations that do have extenuating circumstances, so blanket enforcement of zero-tolerance policies has drawn considerable criticism and has produced some outrageous incidents of unjust punishment.

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  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. State Profiles of Underage Drinking Laws.