La. top court upholds lower DUI limits for drivers under 21

NEW ORLEANS — A 1997 Louisiana law that sets a lower legal intoxication limit for drivers under the age of 21 is constitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The high court, by a 6-1 vote, reversed state District Judge Preston Aucoin of Ville Platte, who had ruled that the law illegally discriminates against 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

The underage driving under the influence law, La. Revised Statute 14:98.1, dropped the legal level of intoxication to 0.02 percent blood-alcohol concentration for people younger than 21. The limit for people 21 and older is 0.10 percent.

“The Supreme Court has spoken clearly and strongly,” state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub said of the court’s decision.

The Attorney General’s Office had argued to the justices during a hearing in November that the underage DUI law justifiably discriminates against 18- to 20-year-olds to promote highway safety and protect underage drinkers who drive. The state argued that 18-, 19- and 20-year-old drivers are “overrepresented” in alcohol-related wrecks in Louisiana.

“In this case, the proposition is that lowering the BAC (blood-alcohol concentration) limit for drivers under twenty-one to a ‘zero tolerance’ level of 0.02 percent is substantially related to improving overall highway safety by reducing alcohol-related accidents,” Justice Harry Lemmon wrote for the majority.

“We conclude that the State has met its burden of establishing that the classification in La. Rev. Stat. 14:98.1 substantially, and not just incidentally, furthers the admittedly appropriate governmental purpose,” he said.

Aucoin also struck down a prior Louisiana law that raised the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21. The state Supreme Court originally sided with Aucoin, but later reversed itself after the makeup of the court changed.

“We discern no constitutional violation in the Legislature’s providing a criminal penalty for operating a motor vehicle by a person who is drinking in small amounts and cannot drink legally at all,”

Lemmon added. Lemmon was joined by Chief Justice Pascal Calogero Jr. and Justices Jeffrey Victory, Chet Traylor, Bernette Johnson and Jeannette Theriot Knoll. Justice Walter Marcus Jr. cast the lone dissenting vote. Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball did not sit on the panel that decided the case.

“The ‘zero tolerance’ law at issue here would be acceptable if it applied to all persons and did not discriminate against a group based on age,” Marcus wrote.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came in the case of Joseph D. Ferris, a Ville Platte man who challenged the legality of the underage DUI law after he was ticketed for speeding and DUI in 1998. Ferris was arrested on his high school graduation night with a blood-alcohol level of 0.07. Because Ferris was only 18, he was charged with underage DUI. Ferris had consumed alcohol legally at a private residence, his attorney said.

The ’97 law has remained in effect, but prosecutions of those arrested under the law have been on hold while the Supreme Court decided the case, the Attorney General’s Office said.

Aucoin twice struck down the underage DUI law. After holding a hearing in March 1999 on Aucoin’s first ruling, the state Supreme Court threw out the judge’s decision and sent the case back to him last May, saying he improperly excluded evidence that 18- to 21-year-old drivers are overrepresented in alcohol-related accidents. The justices did not rule on the legality of the law at that time. Aucoin held another hearing and again ruled last June that the law is unconstitutional because it violates a constitutional provision that prohibits discrimination based on age.

Penalties for underage DUI aren’t as severe as for adult DWI. A first-offense DUI carries a maximum fine of $250, loss of driver’s license for up to 90 days and no jail time. A first DWI conviction can mean six months in prison and a $500 fine.

A provision of the underage DUI law permits a violation of the law to remain on a person’s record and therefore, according to Ferris, potentially serve as an enhancement of a later DWI conviction.

Lemmon said such is not the case.

“We conclude that a violation of Section 98.1 may not be used to enhance a subsequent DWI conviction, regardless of how long it is retained in a person’s records,” he wrote.

State Rep. Reggie Dupre Jr. of Houma, the lead author of the underage DUI legislation, has said Louisiana faced the loss of $24 million a year in federal highway funds — beginning this year — if it did not respond to a federal mandate for “zero tolerance” of underage drinking and driving.

Wisconsin Sees Sudden Rise in Traffic Deaths

Teen fatalities increased speeds on rural roads, alcohol use cited reflect trend;

More people are dying on Wisconsin roads this year than at any time in the last 20 years, state officials warned Tuesday.

A dangerous mixture of speed, alcohol, youth, testosterone and low seat belt use appears to be fueling the deadly crashes, the state Department of Transportation said.

And the three recent crashes that killed 12 teenagers in five weeks could be just the beginning of a bloody year to come, authorities say.

“If the current trends continue, we will kill 1,000 people on the roads of this state” in 2000, said John Evans, state director of transportation safety.

Transportation Secretary Terry Mulcahy has summoned law enforcement and transportation officials to a statewide traffic safety summit to discuss the problem todayin Green Bay.

During the first 4 1/2 months of this year, 272 people died in traffic crashes, up more than 33% from the same period last year, state figures show. At that rate, traffic deaths this year could approximate the 998 fatalities of 1979 – up by more than 250 from last year’s 745, said Dennis Hughes, DOT chief of safety policy analysis.

“Two decades of highway progress may get wiped out this year if we can’t stem the tide,” Hughes said.

Because crashes typically rise in warmer months, when driving increases, the worst could still be ahead, Hughes warned.

Nearby states aren’t seeing similar increases. Traffic deaths in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota are about equal to or lower than totals for this time last year, according to authorities in those states. Iowa figures weren’t available Tuesday evening.

“We’re setting records, and frankly, it’s not the type of notoriety we want,” Mulcahy said in a prepared statement.

Perplexed by the mounting death toll, authorities are studying some of the factors that could be contributing to the trend. Among them:


For the first four months of this year, speed was a factor in 37% of all fatal crashes, continuing a trend that saw speed-related crashes rise 11% last year. The average for the last five years is 35%.

And traffic speeds themselves are increasing: On rural four-lane highways, including interstates, 15% of all drivers were traveling 75 mph or more during March and April. At the same time last year, 15% were driving 74.5 mph or more, while for 1998 the figure was 73.5 mph, Hughes said.

That’s particularly distressing because traffic speeds – and crashes – usually drop in colder months, Evans and Hughes said. But this winter, traffic speeds actually increased in January, boosting the risk on icy and snowy roads, they said.

Fatal crashes are most common on rural highways, where speeds are higher than on city streets, Hughes said. The three crashes that each killed four teens this year were all on rural roads. Also, 21% of this year’s crashes have been on rural town roads, up from 14% last year.


Drivers had been drinking in 36% of all fatal crashes in the first four months of this year, up from 32% last year – but not much different from the 37% average for the past five years.

The four teens who died near Neillsville May 7 collided with a repeat drunk driver’s vehicle, authorities said. Tough new penalties on repeat drunk drivers don’t take effect until next year.


As of Monday, 54 of this year’s crash victims were between the ages of 15 and 19, compared with 93 for all of 1999.

A 16-year-old was at the wheel of the car that went out of control near Rhinelander on April 4, killing her and three teen passengers. And a 17-year-old driver apparently ran a stop sign in the crash that killed him and three other teens near Kaukauna May 9, authorities said.

New restrictions on teen drivers are starting this year, but most of the rules don’t take effect until Sept. 1.

Seat belts

Among this year’s traffic victims, 67% were not wearing seat belts, up from 65% last year and 63% in 1998.

Authorities say not wearing a seat belt increases the risk of being thrown from a vehicle and killed in a crash. Doctors and law enforcement officers say that was a major reason why seven magazine sales agents died in a 1999 van crash near Janesville.


Men constitute 70% of this year’s traffic victims, DOT spokeswoman Christi Powers said. That figure is usually closer to 65%, Hughes said.

DOT officials have not tried to cross-tabulate the figures to find out if the factors are overlapping and if, for example, reckless male teenagers are getting drunk, driving too fast and causing fatal crashes. Such an analysis may not be statistically valid, Hughes warned.

Still, authorities hope today’s summit will craft a strategy that targets the key ingredients in the traffic death increase, Evans said.

“It’s almost a death wish to get in a vehicle without a seat belt, exceed the speed limit or to drink and drive,” Mulcahy said. “Motorists are taking tremendous risks, and it’s showing up in the number of lives lost on Wisconsin roads.”

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 17, 2000.

Teen-age drinking parties appear to be on the decline in Vermont

RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) With prom season in full swing and high school graduations looming, police and liquor enforcement officials across Vermont say high school students are drinking less.

But students say the parties are still taking place. They’re just smaller and young people have learned how to hide their parties.

”It seems to be that people are getting the message,” said State Liquor Inspector John D’Esposito. ”It is becoming de-normalized to have a party with alcohol.”

But some Rutland County high school students don’t believe it.

”It still goes on,” said Jared Cote, a senior at Mill River Union High School.

D’Esposito has devoted a lot of time educating students and parents about the dangers, risks and liabilities of including alcohol at teen parties. He has given seminars, talks and answered many people’s questions on the subject of underage drinking.

The education campaign, coupled with party alternatives like Project Graduation, has resulted in fewer parties involving alcohol and teen-agers, he said.

”Parents are initiating some of it, the kids are doing some of it,” he said. ”But Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

To be sure, the parties still happen and teen-agers are still going to get drunk.

”As far as parties go, they still happen,” one high school senior who asked to remain anonymous told the Rutland Herald. ”I would say that more kids do (drink alcohol) than don’t. People have more respect for cops now because they know they can get busted. People are just more secretive about it.”

He said parties occur at houses where a student’s parents have gone away, or out in the woods at a remote camping spot.

Police have received fewer reports of underage drinking parties this year compared to last year, according to Rutland City Police Lt. Kevin Geno.

Geno is one of the leaders of the Rutland County Stop Teen Alcohol Risk Team – a combined law enforcement effort that targets underage drinking. Nevertheless, he said, extra patrols will be out looking for parties and underage drinkers – in particular underage drinkers who are driving.

”It’s tough this time of year because you don’t want any tragedies,” he said. ”It’s a time of year for them to celebrate, but it is also a time of year for them to be careful.”