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.