Under the Influence: What Happens to a Passenger During a DUI Arrest?

One minute you are cruising down the highway after a party, with your friend behind the wheel, the next minute a police officer is stopping your vehicle.

You and your friend step out of the car, and the officer explains that their laser radar gun picked up that you were speeding. The officer proceeds to conduct a sobriety test and a preliminary breath test (PBT) on your friend, which they failed because they drank something at the party.

Your friend is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI), but what about you? How do you figure in a DUI arrest when you’re in the passenger’s seat?

Your role in a DUI investigation

According to laws under various states, the passenger can’t be charged in a drunk driving arrest. However, the officer will still assess your own level of intoxication.

If you fail the sobriety test and the PBT, the officer would have you ask a sober friend or relative to pick you up. If you cannot get in touch with someone, you may have to spend the night in jail or have the officer drive you home.

If you are sober, you have to prove to the officer why you couldn’t drive. Valid excuses include:

  • No driver’s license
  • Restrictions on driver’s license (such as being allowed to drive only during the daytime)
  • An injury or medical condition that prevents you from driving (such as poor eyesight)

What happens to you?

Even if you’re a passenger of a drunk driver, you may be found criminally liable if you’re guilty of one or more of the following:

  • Switching seats with a sober passenger

You might be the one driving and decided to switch seats with a sober passenger to avoid getting arrested. The investigating officer might look at the evidence, such as the placement of injuries and positioning of car seats, and conclude that the passenger is actually the driver. If this happens, you’ll still be arrested for DUI.

  • Allowing an intoxicated person to drive

If you are sober and have no legitimate excuse not to take the wheel, the officer may charge you with reckless endangerment. This is not a serious offense that can be reduced in court or dropped altogether.

  • Interfering with the vehicle’s operation

Some state laws charge an intoxicated passenger with DUI if they get involved with the operation of a moving vehicle. This was the case in 2014 when a drunk passenger grabbed the steering wheel from the driver, causing an accident.

  • Storing an open container of alcohol in the car

If the car contains an opened alcoholic beverage, you may be charged with breaking the state’s open container laws.

  • Furnishing alcohol to a minor

If the police discover that the intoxicated driver is under 21 years old, they can charge you for supplying alcohol to a minor.

  • Other offenses

Woman being arrested

You could also face charges related to damage and injuries that occurred as a result of your involvement in the incident.

When the driver of the vehicle you’re in is arrested for DUI, it doesn’t mean that you’re safe as a passenger. You could still be criminally liable for circumstances leading to the drunk driving.

Lesson learned? If you and your friend have too much to drink, it’s better to have someone sober drive the car for you.

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