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Minors, Alcohol, and Driving Privileges

Fighting the Many Injustices in Utah's Court System

Utah law imposes very serious sanctions criminally for underage drinking offenses—but sometimes even more harsh are the collateral driver license consequences. For example, a minor who is under the age of 21 and who is convicted of possessing or consuming alcohol will, in addition to criminal penalties—which usually consist of a fine, community service and alcohol classes—have their driver license suspended for 1 year with no option for a restricted license or work permit. Fortunately Utah law does allow the judge to issue an order reinstating the minor’s driver early if it is their first offense for possessing or consuming alcohol and if they complete the state certified 16-Hour Prime for Life DUI Education course. However, if it is the minor’s second offense for possessing or consuming alcohol, the suspension period increases to 2 YEARS!!! With no option for a restricted license or work permit. Seems to me that minors who are learning, exploring, and growing up should be given the most opportunity or leeway for making mistakes, but that is obviously not the case. A 21 year old can drive a car, cause an accident, get a DUI, and blow a breath alcohol level of .25 and only have their license suspended for 120 days, while a 20 year old who has two beers sitting at a friends house nowhere near a vehicle can have his or her driver license suspended for 1 to 2 years!! Doesn’t make a lot of sense and certainly is not a fair result.

Prime example: Jason Schatz recently handled a case for a 20-year-old client who was at a friend’s apartment having a few beers when the cops showed up, and she was arrested for being a Minor (under 21) in Possession or Consumption of Alcohol. She had had a similar ticket the year prior when she was 19. Without an attorney, she went to court on the 2nd ticket and pled guilty without being advised by the prosecutor or the court before she entered her guilty plea that her license would be suspended for 2 years. As the judge imposed her sentence, she was finally told that her license would be suspended for 2 years, but it was too late to do anything because she had already pled. Appalled by the suspension, the Defendant and her mother contacted my office to find out what could be done to try and reverse the damage. My client was not only an excellent student with only one criminal conviction on her record (the prior alcohol ticket), she was also a scholarship athlete who was living in Utah away from her entire family, making life that much more difficult without a license to drive. Withdrawing the plea was not an option because judges in Utah are not legally required to advise Defendants of collateral consequences to convictions such as driver license suspensions before accepting their plea. (Another injustice!) Our only chance was to appeal the case to the District Court, which we did. Not having a good suppression issue to defend the case, we had to get creative to try to avoid the suspension. With some creative lawyering and persuasive arguing, Mr. Schatz convinced the prosecutor to change the Defendant’s plea in District Court from “Minor in Possession or Consumption of Alcohol” to “Intoxication,” we were able to reverse the 2-year suspension, and the client got her license back just four days after her new hearing in District Court.

At some point, the legislature has to realize that the punishment must fit the crime, and by imposing these ridiculous driver license suspensions on minors, they are doing more harm than good by creating a whole group of college-age citizens who are either compelled (forced?) to break the law by driving without a license in order to get to work or attend college classes if they don’t live in campus, or they drop out of school and don’t work at a time when they should be pursuing higher education and working to become independent young adults. It’s time for the Utah Legislature to step up and correct these laws and do the right thing to eliminate these senseless driver license suspensions for alcohol offenses committed by minors who are not driving vehicles.

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