Zero Tolerance Law

The meaning of “Zero Tolerance law” is that people will suffer automatic punishments by law as a result of engaging in a particular kind of behavior. For example, Zero Tolerance law in the U.S. refers to driving while under the influence of alcohol and while underage. In other words, Zero Tolerance laws make it illegal for any driver under the age of 21 to operate a vehicle with any blood alcohol count (BAC) whatsoever, whether physically impaired or not. To explore this concept, consider the following Zero Tolerance law definition.

Definition of Zero Tolerance Law


  1. A law that orders automatic punishments for anyone who breaks a particular law, e.g. driving while under the influence of alcohol and while underage.



What is Zero Tolerance Law?

In the United States, Zero Tolerance law refers to the law that makes it illegal for individuals under the age of 21 to buy or drink any alcohol. While specific punishments under the law may vary by state, this law applies to all 50 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia.

Typically, the law states that driving with a BAC (blood alcohol level) of 0.08 or higher is illegal. However, with Zero Tolerance laws, no matter how much alcohol is in a person’s system while driving, if he is under the age of 21, he has committed a crime. This means that even in some families wherein minors may enjoy an innocent glass of wine with dinner, they subject themselves to a DUI charge if they then go out and drive afterwards.

Purpose of Zero Tolerance

The purpose of zero tolerance boils down to statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about one-third of all deaths for children between the ages of 15 and 20 years old occur in motor vehicle crashes. About 35 percent of those deaths relate to alcohol, which is nearly double the rate of alcohol-related fatalities affecting drivers over 21. The reason for this is because even a low level of drinking while underage is enough to cause a fatal accident.

However, the purpose of zero tolerance extends to more than the danger one risks when driving under the influence while underage. The purpose of zero tolerance is essentially to protect children from themselves. In other words, a DUI conviction can have long-term, even permanent, effects on the rest of a person’s future. An underage driver with a DUI conviction can have a harder time finding work, getting into college, and even securing the insurance necessary to drive another car.

Underage DUI

All states take underage DUI very seriously. A teenager may have only had one beer, and a weak one at that, but if it shows up during a sobriety check, the teen may suffer the same consequences as if he were blindingly drunk. It may not seem fair, but the U.S. takes underage DUI very seriously, allowing the police to arrest an underage drinker without requiring proof that the driver was intoxicated. All states must implement underage DUI laws as a condition of receiving federal highway funding.

National Minimum Drinking Age Act

Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in July of 1984. People met the National Minimum Drinking Age Act with immediate backlash, as the bill punished every state that allowed individuals under the age of 21 to buy and publicly display alcohol. The punishment under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was that any state that allowed this would see its annual federal highway funds reduced by 10 percent. In 2012, officials amended the law, lowering the penalty to 8 percent.

Interestingly, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, despite its name, did not outlaw the drinking of alcohol by minors, only the purchasing of it. However, some states, including Alabama, North Carolina, and Vermont, took it upon themselves to extend the law to be an absolute ban. Each state has its own minimum purchasing and consumption ages, with some states permitting the “underage” consumption of alcohol in certain circumstances – like while under the supervision of a family member.

Predetermined Punishment

With regard to predetermined punishment for those who break the Zero Tolerance laws, the punishment varies by state. The definitions of the crimes for which the law establishes predetermined punishment change, too. For instance, one state may call it “driving under the influence,” or DUI, while another calls it “operating (a motor vehicle) under the influence,” or OUI. In some cases, predetermined punishment can even affect non-motorized vehicles, including bikes and golf carts.

Interestingly, on a federal level, zero tolerance has more to do with weaponry, such as the possession and sale of firearms. In cases where the defendant has already received convictions in the past, if the police find him with a firearm, he faces a minimum punishment of ten years in prison.

Examples of Zero Tolerance Law Criticisms

Because Zero Tolerance laws are so strict, it is hardly surprising that they are controversial in nature. What follows are some Zero Tolerance law examples of criticisms people have about these laws:

  • Some believe Zero Tolerance laws make policing less effective in that these laws do not hold police to a higher degree of accountability.
  • Some believe that if individuals are going to commit a crime knowing there are Zero Tolerance laws in effect, then they will commit a worse crime, knowing the punishment is the same.
  • Some believe that not all cases are the same, and that by eliminating investigation on a case-by-case basis, someone is going to receive a harsh punishment for a lesser crime when compared to someone receiving the same punishment.

Zero Tolerance law examples of criticisms suggest that, when people try to adopt a “one punishment fits all” form of punishment, they create a “zero tolerance fallacy.” On a related note, some Zero Tolerance law examples of criticisms provide suggestions for ways to tweak these laws to make them fairer for everyone and less fallible.

Zero Tolerance Law Example Involving an 18-Year-Old Boy

An example of zero tolerance law heard in court occurred in November 1996 in the matter of Commonwealth v. Howard. Here, Myren Howard was 18 years old when a state trooper pulled him over in the state of Kentucky and tested him for driving while intoxicated. Howard showed a 0.032 on the breathalyzer test, so the state trooper arrested him and charged him with violating state law.

At his trial, Howard argued that the statute was unconstitutional and that it violated his equal protection rights under the law. Howard’s basis for this argument was that the statute discriminated against individuals over the age of 18 years old. Perhaps surprisingly, both the district court and the circuit court agreed with him and therefore decided they could not uphold the statute, even if its intention at its core was a noble one.

Supreme Court of Kentucky

The Supreme Court of Kentucky, however, felt rather differently. Ultimately, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision, declaring that yes, in fact, the statute was constitutional. The Court’s rationale for its decision was, in its own words:

“…we determine that the statute in question does not violate Section 59 of the Kentucky Constitution because the classification provided in the statute is based on natural, real and substantial distinctions as recognized in Board of Education of Louisville v. Board of Education of Jefferson County, Ky. [Citation omitted.]

Here, the law applies equally to the class of drivers under age 21 and the reasons for dividing the classification are based on the statutory legal age at which alcohol can be purchased. This legislation does not amount to the type of special legislation prohibited by Section 59 of the Kentucky Constitution. See Smith, which stated in part that the enactment of a statutory system based on a voluntary federal statutory plan was constitutional. [Citation omitted.]”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.