Can a passenger in a car get charged with DUI?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Sep 04, 2019 | 0 Comments

dui passengers

There are situations when the so-called “passenger” of a vehicle can be charged with DUI. These are when:

  1. the passenger helps steer the vehicle,
  2. the drunk driver switches seats with the passenger, and
  3. the arresting officer is not sure who drove the car.

Note that a passenger can also be charged with other alcohol or drug-related offenses when a car is pulled over for suspicion of a DUI offense. These are:

  • underage drinking,
  • underage possession of alcohol, and/or
  • drug possession.

In California, the penalties for a DUI may include:

Can a passenger be charged with DUI if he helps steer the car?

A DUI offense can occur if an intoxicated passenger is riding in a vehicle and helps steer it.

The law says that a person is “driving” a motor vehicle if he touches the steering wheel or has control over the vehicle. This means that:

  • if a passenger is intoxicated, and
  • simply reaches over and helps steer the car (even if to avoid an accident),

the passenger can be charged with DUI. This is because he:

  • was intoxicated or under the influence, and
  • technically “drove” the vehicle.

Note that the passenger, though, does have to be intoxicated or under the influence for a DUI to occur. If a sober passenger touches a steering wheel, then no crime is committed – even if the driver is drunk.

What happens if a drunk driver switches seats with a passenger?

If a drunk driver switches seats with a passenger prior to an officer reaching the vehicle, then technically the new “passenger” can be charged with DUI.

Consider, for example, a situation when Mark and his girlfriend, Kim, are both in a car. Mark is driving while intoxicated. Kim is sober and is the passenger. Mark sees police sirens in the rear-view mirror and pulls the auto to the side of the road. Prior to the moment when the officer reaches the vehicle, Mark, trying to avoid a DUI charge, switches seats with Kim and becomes the new passenger. Here, it is likely that the officer will see what is taking place in the car and still charge Mark with DUI, even though he is sitting in the passenger seat.

What happens if an arresting officer is not sure who was driving a vehicle in a DUI case?

Sometimes a police officer may mistakenly charge a passenger with DUI if he does not know who was driving the automobile.

This sometimes happens when there has been an accident, because of a drunk driver, and the police arrive at the scene after the car is stopped. Here, if there were multiple people in the car and they have exited the vehicle before the police arrive, the authorities will not know for certain who was driving. This means an officer may mistakenly charge someone, such as the passenger, for the DUI offense.

Please note, however, that this mistake will typically be corrected after the police investigate matters. Or, after a skilled DUI defense attorney analyzes the facts of the case.

Can a passenger be charged with an alcohol or drug-related offenses when a car is pulled over for suspicion of a DUI offense?

After a car is stopped for suspicion of a DUI, a passenger can be charged with an alcohol or drug related crime.

This often occurs with passengers under the age of 21. Depending on the facts of the case, they can be charged with either:

  • underage drinking, or
  • underage possession of alcohol.

In addition, if drugs are found in the vehicle, the passenger (and others in the auto) could be charged with drug possession.

In California, what are the penalties for a DUI?

A first, second or third DUI offense in California is treated as a misdemeanor. The penalties for DUI may include:

  • misdemeanor probation,
  • fines,
  • DUI school, and
  • a driver's license suspension (though it may be possible to continue driving if the defendant installs an ignition interlock device (IID) in his/her cars).

These penalties will grow more severe if either of the following is true:

  • the defendant has prior DUIs on his record, or
  • someone was injured as the result of the defendant driving while intoxicated.

Either of these could result in felony charges being filed or substantial jail time being imposed.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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