DWI at Age 15 – Minnesota Not-A-Drop Law

I received an email from a concerned mom a few days ago. Her son had been arrested for “not-a-drop.” It seems that he was 15, had a learner’s permit, and was driving another teenage friend’s vehicle. The only other person in the car was the teenage friend. So for starters, this was a violation of the terms of the learning permit, which requires that a licensed driver over 21 years of age be present.

The officer observed him weaving and pulled him over. The breath test on the scene indicated .03 percent blood alcohol content. That’s way below the legal limit, so the 15 year old was not charged with a DWI. However, driving at that age with any detectable level of alcohol is a violation of the “not-a-drop law.”

I have a detailed discussion of the not-a-drop law on my underage drinking and driving web page. After receiving the email from the driver’s mother, I pulled up my own page to review the law before I responded. It seemed clear to me that under the circumstances described, this 15 year old was going to be denied a driver’s license until age 21, together with whatever criminal penalties the juvenile court decided to give him – since violation of not-a-drop is a misdemeanor.

To make sure I had it right, however, I called the Department of Public Safety. I got one of their Driver Evaluators on the phone and discussed the matter with him. His opinion was that the 15 year old would only receive a 30 day suspension of his privilege to drive. The Evaluator stated further that it would have taken a breath reading of over .08 or a conviction for DWI before they would require this young man to wait until age 21 before he could get a license.

I did a response email and let the mom know what I had learned. It surprised me, however, which is why I bring it up here. From the way the state statute is written, it is fairly clear to me that the legislature intended that young people who do things like this are not to be allowed to drive until they turn 21; but that is not how our Department of Public Safety interprets it.

The Minnesota statute which cuts off driving privileges until age 21 for juvenile drunk drivers is commonly referred to as “Vanessa’s Law.” This law is named after Vanessa Weiss, a Minnesota teenager who was killed when she was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by an intoxicated, unlicensed 15 year old in 2003. It was written quickly and I think poorly, passed quickly by the legislature, and is now obviously subject to various interpretations. It should be reviewed by the legislature to make sure that the way it is being interpreted matches their intent.

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