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While it is generally understood that drivers who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs can face criminal charges for DUI, people often wonder what type of criminal liability a passenger in a vehicle being operated by someone who is under the influence may face. In the vast majority of cases, a passenger in a vehicle driven by a drunk driver will not risk being charged with a crime. Under the law, one cannot be prosecuted for aiding or abetting a DUI offense. This means that passengers who may have agreed to ride with someone who was obviously drunk or even passengers who actively encouraged an intoxicated person to drive would not be criminally liable for their conduct.
There are some limited circumstances where a passenger in a vehicle could be charged with driving under the influence. There have been cases where someone who is in the passenger seat and under the influence of drugs or alcohol grabs the driver’s steering wheel and causes a collision. In these instances, the passenger could be charged with DUI, as their act of manipulating the steering wheel may be considered “operating a motor vehicle” in violation of California Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) or California Vehicle Code Section 23152(b). Of course, a prosecutor may have a difficult time proving that a passenger actually drove a vehicle in these situations.
In addition, there may be situations where a driver and passenger switch positions after getting into a collision. This is usually done where the driver is intoxicated and the passenger is not and the driver is trying to avoid a DUI arrest. If the police ultimately believe that the passenger was actually the one driving the vehicle, that “passenger” could be charged with a DUI offense. In some cases, both the passenger and driver who switch positions can be charged with DUI in the same incident if both parties were intoxicated and had driven the vehicle. If one or both of the parties gave the police false information when questioned about who was driving, they may be charged with providing false information in violation of California Vehicle Code Section 31.
Even though a passenger in a vehicle usually is not at risk for being charged with a DUI offense, passengers in DUI stops can be charged with other crimes. If the police notice an open container of alcohol in the passenger’s possession or under his or her seat, the passenger could be cited for this offense. If convicted, the passenger would face an automatic driver’s license suspension. In addition, police officers may suspect that the vehicle contains drugs or other illicit items. If the police search the vehicle and the passengers therein, there may be drugs or weapons discovered during the search that could expose the passenger to potential criminal charges. However, passengers in vehicles have a certain expectations of privacy and the passenger may have cause to challenge the validity of the search if he or she is charged criminally.