The law is clear. If your blood alcohol level is 0.08% or higher and you’re pulled over, you’ll be charged with a DUI. What isn’t clear is what happens if you’re the drunk passenger in a vehicle that’s being operated by a drunk driver.
The good news is that you can’t be charged with a DUI. That particular law only impacts people who are physically operating the vehicle at the time.
That doesn’t mean you’re completely off the hook. It’s entirely likely that the police officer will consider other things they can charge you. It’s not uncommon for drunken passengers to be charged with public drunkenness, underage drinking, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace, etc. In many cases, the exact charges you face will be determined by how badly you behaved when the car you were in was pulled over. If you sit quietly, do everything the officer asks, and find a sober driver to give you a lift home, it’s likely the officer will let you go.
What if You Caused the Accident
There have been cases when a passenger was charged with a DUI. Some of these cases involve a drunk driver, but there have been some where the driver was sober and was helping transport a drunk passenger. Most of these situations involved the passenger grabbing the steering wheel and yanking the car off course. Since you were behaving as the operator at that moment, you can be charged with a DUI.
Things can take a different turn if the officer suspects that you knew the driver was drunk. It hasn’t happened in California yet, but some states have gone so far as to create DUI by consent laws that means anyone who knew the driver was drunk and failed to stop them from getting behind the wheel faces serious criminal charges.
In California, knowingly allowing someone to get behind the wheel even though you knew they were drunk creates the perfect situation for anyone who was hurt by the drunk driver to file a civil lawsuit against you. In many cases, this type of lawsuit favors the plaintiff, meaning you could lose everything. Not only could the victims of the drunk driving accident file civil charges against you, if your drunk driving friend is hurt or killed in the accident, their family might also name you in a lawsuit.
If you are unable to convince a drunk friend to let you drive them home, it’s in your best interest to contact the police and alert them to the situation. By letting everyone know there is a problem, you create proof that you did everything in your power to stop them from driving which makes it difficult for anyone to mount a civil case against you.