By Patricia Fong
Drivers under the age of 21 can be cited for drunken driving with blood alcohol concentrations as low as 0.01 percent. These crimes range from infractions to misdemeanors and felonies depending on the blood-alcohol content and if someone is injured or killed.
A significant consequence for juvenile drunken driving is the driver’s license suspension, which can range from one to three years. Juvenile license suspensions also result from convictions for alcohol possession, vandalism, possession or use of drugs, refusing to submit to a chemical test and truancy.
Driving is a privilege in California and a grown-up responsibility. Juvenile drivers must be conscientious in their decisions to drive or how they drive (e.g., using cell phones, texting, speeding). They need to be held accountable for their choices.
Juvenile drivers need to be reminded that both their parents and the state can take away that privilege to drive.
The parental instinct to protect offspring who drive drunk is often misplaced. It’s not uncommon for parents to state: “We are not trying to get our daughter off on a technicality, we just want the best possible outcome for her. … Losing her license will result in significant inconvenience in getting her to school and extracurricular activities. … Her mother and I cannot transport her every day. Besides, we won’t be able to get insurance if she is convicted. Can you help us?”
Another parent questions the license suspension imposed by the judge: “Yes, my son committed the crime, but the consequences are just so inconvenient.”
A third parent offers a different perspective. The son was seriously injured in an accident as a passenger of a 22-year-old drunken driver. This parent and his wife feel lucky that their son was not killed. He did not lose any limbs or bodily functions, but the brain trauma continues.
“These drunk-driving accidents are life-changers, whether the person is killed, maimed or suffers severe brain trauma,” the parent says. “Taking the license suspension may be a little inconvenient — get a bike — but in no way does that small inconvenience compare with the last 14 months we have spent in the hospital, going to doctor’s appointments, getting our son to rehabilitation.
“These images are imbedded in my mind because I have seen it all first-hand — the trauma center, months in the ICU, tubes and wiring everywhere, worrying then if our son was going to live or not and now wondering how much recovery he will actually achieve. The last 15 months have been hell. A license suspension is only a temporary inconvenience compared to what my son and family are going through now.”
So my response to that request — “Can you help us?” — is: What is more inconvenient — a license suspension now, spending months in the hospital or planning a funeral?
How does a parent teach a child to respect the law and learn the lessons he needs to learn without having that child take full responsibility for his or her own poor decisions? A parent who pulls every string and exploits every contact to attempt to nullify punishment prescribed by the law is doing a disservice to that child. Parents need to step back and let their kids stumble, even though the parental bond strongly influences mom or dad to protect and coddle their child.
Remember when your child begged to drive? You took them out on the road to practice. They passed the DMV tests and signed a promise to obey the rules of the road. You handed over the keys to a potentially deadly weapon weighing 2,000 pounds or more and prayed that nothing bad would happen.
Trying to fix their ticket is quite opposite to helping them “grow up” to be responsible adults.
Putting aside crimes involving rape, murder and other serious violent acts committed by teens approaching adulthood, the goal in juvenile law is much different than that in adult court. In juvenile law, there is less emphasis on punishment and incarceration and more focus on intervention, prevention, education and rehabilitation. However, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences.
In my experience as a career prosecutor, the natural instinct of parents to protect their children is often misplaced when the child commits a crime, especially in cases involving drunken driving. Sometimes, making the best decision causes some inconveniences.
— Patricia Fong has been a Yolo County deputy district attorney for 24 years and is currently assigned to the Juvenile Division.