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Juvenile DUI charges can be tried in adult court

Teens are drinking and driving less, but it's still a huge public health issue.
Alejandro Rivera
Teens are drinking and driving less, but it's still a huge public health issue.

Three juveniles prosecuted for driving under the influence lost their consolidated appeal before the South Dakota Supreme Court. The teens were charged in magistrate courts, but they contend their cases should have been heard in juvenile court.

The Supreme Court disagrees, saying prosecutors have the option of charging them under the statute that applies to all intoxicated drivers regardless of age.

The three appellants were arrested in three separate events for driving with a blood alcohol content that tested well above .08 percent, the legal limit. One of them had a BAC of .189, and there were two other juveniles and two infants in the car she was driving.

The juveniles were charged with driving under the influence and went before magistrates, who handle misdemeanors.

The teens appealed, saying they should have been charged under the state’s zero-tolerance law that doesn’t allow anyone under the age of 21 to drive with a .02 percent blood alcohol content. That low BAC would not result in criminal charges for someone old enough to drink legally, and so violations are relegated to juvenile court proceedings called Child in Need of Supervision, or CHINS.

At oral arguments in March last year, Eric Davis represented two of the juveniles.

Davis told justices that the legislature enacted juvenile justice reforms such as the zero-tolerance law to address kids’ problems early, before they get out of hand.

“If the prosecutor does not agree with that assessment for whatever reason, then my client is not entitled to the guidance and benefit and control offered by the CHINS program and is instead going to be punished as if he were a 50-year-old man instead of the 16-year-old child that he is,” Davis said.

But the state argued that magistrate court had clear jurisdiction over the juveniles. Assistant Attorney General Chelsea Wenzel said prosecutors have discretion over how to charge crimes unless the Constitution or state laws say otherwise.

“Looking at the delinquency statutes, DUI carries a criminal penalty of an adult nature,” she said. “So normally that would fall under juvenile delinquency. However, it’s also a traffic offense, which the legislature has categorically excepted from the delinquency statutes.”

In its opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the state and upheld the handling of the three DUI cases.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.