Important Things Teens Need to Know About the Law

For high school and college kids, summer is a welcome relief from the pressure of the classroom.


But for their parents, summer can be stressful. All that freedom means more opportunities for teens to get in trouble.

To clarify some of the legal issues teens face, I interviewed Wilmette defense attorney Barry Spector. Spector has represented many young people, including one of the  “Powder Puff” girls involved in the 2003 Glenbrook North hazing incident and New Trier’s Erin Hughes, currently accused of leaving the scene after hitting a fellow student with her car.

Here are a few important points teens should know about their legal rights and responsibilities.

  • Any amount of alcohol or drugs can lead to trouble. While adults over 21 can legally operate a car if they have a blood alcohol level less than .08%, there is no allowable threshold for underage drinkers. Since drinking is illegal for teens, driving even after a few sips of beer can result in a driver’s license suspension. The same is true of drugs.

“In Illinois, there is zero tolerance for any illegal substance in your blood or urine,” Spector says. “Even if you’re not under the influence of the drug while you’re driving, it can result in a DUI charge—even if it was taken days or weeks ago.”

  • Only the driver has to take a Breathalyzer test. All Illinois drivers agree to submit to alcohol or chemical testing as a condition of getting their license and the penalties for drivers who refuse are stiff. However, passengers or pedestrians are not legally obligated to submit to testing.

So, do you always tell your clients not to take the test?

“There’s no right answer,” he replies. “Sometimes, in this area, giving up your rights has benefits.”

Authorities may go easier on kids who cooperate. And refusing the Breathalyzer doesn’t mean a young person won’t be charged with underage drinking; police can use their observations of the teen’s behavior as a basis for the charge.

It’s a decision teens often have to make alone, as they don’t always have the right to legal counsel before taking the test.

Age of Consent
In Illinois, a person can’t legally consent to have sex until he or she reaches the age of 17. That means having sex at age 16 or younger—or with a partner that age—is breaking the law.

Regardless of age, both guys and girls need to know that consent can be withdrawn at any point.  For example, a girl who chooses to have sex with her boyfriend can be in the middle of the act and still change her mind. Her partner must respect her wishes. Legally, no means no.

It’s important that all of us understand our rights because, as Spector notes, “every contact a kid or adult has with the police is ultimately an issue of constitutional law.”

But the surest way to avoid trouble with the law is to obey it.

Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of Marjie’s series: Lock Up Your Liquor and Other Ways Parents of Teens Can Avoid Legal Trouble