How Is a Passenger in a Vehicle Impacted by a DUI Situation?

Getting stopped for traffic violations isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, and DUI charges are among the most serious crimes related to operating a vehicle. What happens if you’re in a car — but aren’t the driver — when a DUI situation occurs? Or, what if the vehicle is stopped for any reason and you, as the passenger, are intoxicated? Can these situations lead to you getting arrested and charged with a crime?

You might think the answer is easy. You weren’t driving under the influence if you were the passenger, after all. But it turns out the matter is a bit more complicated than that.

Find out more about how intoxicated passengers might be impacted by a traffic stop, DUI checkpoint, or accident below.

Does California Law Allow Passengers to Be Charged With DUI?

No, a passenger that is simply an occupant in the vehicle and is not operating the vehicle in any way can’t be charged with a DUI. If true passengers could be charged with a crime for riding in the passenger seat while intoxicated, it would negate the entire purpose of the designated driver.

However, there are some times being an intoxicated passenger can result in a DUI charge. They are detailed below.

When the Passenger Touches the Steering Wheel

If an intoxicated passenger grabs the steering wheel, they may be charged with DUI. This is especially true if an accident occurs because of their actions.

To understand how such a situation might occur, consider some hypothetical examples:

  • Rick and Mike are in a car. Mike has been drinking and is above the California BAC legal limit. Rick is driving, but he is distracted by something on the navigation screen momentarily. Mike reaches out to grab the wheel, intending to hold the car steady. At that moment, Mike is technically operating the vehicle and could be charged with a DUI.
  • Consider a similar scenario where Mike just isn’t above the legal limit. He’s excessively drunk and acting out in a belligerent manner. He grabs for the wheel for no logical reason. If he holds the wheel in a way that impacts the driving of the car, he may be seen as operating the car under the influence.

When the Passenger Was Actually the Driver

Cases have occurred wherein the driver suspected they were over the legal limit. If they get into an accident, they may attempt to switch spots with a more sober passenger to avoid a DUI charge. This is even more common when the driver is under 21 and wants to avoid an underage drinking charge.

In such a case, if a law enforcement officer has good reason to believe the “passenger” was actually the driver, that person can be arrested for DUI.

When Law Enforcement Doesn’t Know Who Was Driving

In some cases, the police may not be able to tell immediately who the driver was. Consider a scenario where four people are in a vehicle. They get into a minor accident and all exit the car while awaiting the arrival of first responders. If there are no witnesses or video of the incident, it can be difficult to tell who, really, was driving the vehicle.

In this case, police officers at the scene may arrest someone for drunk driving. If that person was actually a passenger, further investigation will hopefully uncover that fact. However, in such situations, it doesn’t hurt to have a legal professional on your side protecting your rights.

What Other Crimes Might a Passenger Be Charged With?

If police stop a vehicle for a traffic violation or suspected DUI, the passenger can be charged with a variety of other crimes even if they can’t be charged with DUI. Those include underage drinking, possession of drugs, possession of an open container in the vehicle, and any other crime the police identify based on what they see within the vehicle.

When Should You Call a Criminal Defense Attorney?

If you’ve been charged with DUI, an experienced criminal defense attorney can make a huge difference to your peace of mind and the outcome of your case. That’s true whether you were the driver or were a passenger that has been mistakenly identified as the driver.

The criminal justice system can be scary to face on your own, and you certainly don’t have to do that. Call a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible if you are facing charges of any type. A lawyer can:

  • Protect your rights. Even if you are in jail after being arrested, you have a number of rights. A lawyer can stand up for those rights on your behalf.
  • Help you get bail. An experienced attorney can help you go through hearings and argue for a favorable bail outcome.
  • Plan your defense. A criminal defense attorney understands all your options when it comes to defending yourself against charges. They can provide information so you can make the best choice about your situation, which could include entering into a plea bargain or going all the way to trial to argue for your innocence.

A criminal defense attorney can only provide these benefits to you if you call them. Contact Confianza Legal by calling 562-991-6298 if you or someone you love are facing criminal charges, including DUI charges.