Every year in California, thousands of motorists are stopped by the police because they are suspected of driving under the influence (DUI). What most people do not consider is what can happen if there are passengers in a vehicle when the driver is stopped and suspected of DUI. Let our Orange County DUI attorneys explain.
WHAT SHOULD A PASSENGER DO WHEN A DRIVER IS STOPPED FOR DUI?
When a driver is pulled over in traffic for suspicion of driving under the influence, a passenger should never in any circumstance argue with a police officer. Passengers, frankly, should not even speak unless addressed first by an officer.
Passengers should never offer more information than they are asked for, and they should never exit the vehicle during a DUI stop unless they are told to. As a passenger, you have the right to remain silent, but use your wisdom and exercise that right politely.
If the driver is placed in custody for driving under the influence and you are the passenger, an arresting officer may try to assess your own level of intoxication. If you are sober, that officer may want to know why you were not the person driving.
WHAT DUI-RELATED CHARGES CAN PASSENGERS FACE?
A passenger needs the right answer because in this situation a passenger could be charged with reckless endangerment for allowing an intoxicated driver to endanger the public.
This state’s courts presume that a passenger can be held criminally liable for enabling – the law calls it “aiding and abetting” – a DUI offense. In fact, if you’re convicted as an “accomplice” to driving under the influence, you will face the same penalties as if you were actually driving.
But if you do not have a driver’s license, or if there is a legal reason or a medical reason why you can’t drive, you probably will not be charged for reckless endangerment.
WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN CHILDREN ARE PASSENGERS?
The law in California puts the highest priority on the well-being and safety of children.
If you are convicted of driving under the influence in this state, and if one or more children were passengers in your vehicle, you may receive an additional penalty – an “enhancement” – as part of your DUI sentence, or you could be charged with child endangerment.
If you are convicted of driving under the influence in California, and a child under the age of fourteen was a passenger in your vehicle – what California calls “DUI with child endangerment” – state law requires you to serve at least forty-eight hours in jail.
Second and subsequent convictions for DUI with child endangerment require longer mandatory jail terms.
ISN’T THERE A SEPARATE CHILD ENDANGERMENT LAW?
In some cases, however, if you are convicted of driving under the influence, and if any minor under the age of eighteen was your passenger, rather than seek a DUI sentencing enhancement, a California prosecutor may instead opt to charge you separately with child endangerment.
If the police find a minor in a situation “likely to produce great bodily harm or death,” a child endangerment charge will very probably be prosecuted as a felony. A conviction on a felony child endangerment charge is punishable by as much as six years in state prison.
WHAT ABOUT OPEN CONTAINERS IN CALIFORNIA?
It is illegal in this state for passengers as well as drivers to have an open container of alcohol in a vehicle. California’s open container law allows exceptions only for hired vehicles (limousines, for example), RVs, and campers.
California’s open container law bans any alcohol in open cans, bottles, cups, or any type of open container. It’s a comprehensive and precise law. Even if a seal has been broken on an alcohol container, it is considered an open container, and it’s a violation of the law.
WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES FOR OPEN CONTAINER VIOLATIONS?
You will not go to jail for an open container violation – so long as that’s the only charge against you – but you can be fined $250 and have a point imposed against your driver’s license.
California is a zero-tolerance state regarding minors and alcohol, so if you are under twenty-one years old, an open container violation is a far more serious charge.
In southern California, if you are charged with any of the crimes discussed here – DUI, DUI with child endangerment, reckless endangerment (as a passenger), or an open container violation, you will need to contact a DUI lawyer as quickly as possible.
HOW WILL AN ORANGE COUNTY DUI LAW FIRM HELP?
A DUI lawyer will protect your rights and explain how the law applies in your own case. Your attorney may seek to have the charge against you dismissed by challenging the legality of the traffic stop and arrest, questioning DUI test results, or disputing an arresting officer’s testimony.
Driving under the influence and related charges are like all other charges in the criminal justice system; to win a conviction, the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If you are innocent, but the charge against you cannot be dismissed for some reason, an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer may recommend taking your case to trial and asking a jury of your peers to return a not guilty verdict.
However, if the evidence is overwhelming and your conviction for DUI is certain, your attorney may negotiate – and recommend that you accept – a plea bargain that lets you plead guilty to a lesser charge (usually “wet reckless” in California) and keeps a DUI conviction off your record.
WHAT IF YOUR TEENAGER IS ARRESTED?
Nothing is more important than your children and their futures. When teenagers die in traffic collisions in California, alcohol is far too frequently the reason why.
If your teen is charged with DUI in southern California – or with a related charge like using a fake ID to buy alcohol or an open container violation – have the matter resolved in the best way possible and obtain legal help at once from an experienced DUI lawyer in Orange County.
Never let yourself be the passenger of an intoxicated driver. If possible, take that person’s keys. But if you find yourself charged with a DUI-related crime, and you were only a passenger, you are going to need a good attorney’s help.
Get it at once. Having that good legal help is your right.