What Is The Zero Tolerance Law?

Last Updated on May 24, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

Zero tolerance refers to the practice of using laws and policies that contain mandatory enforcement of violations without considering the severity of them, nor the extenuating circumstances that might be involved. 

Essentially, zero tolerance laws mean that a consequence will be given to the offender without external judgment. 

Today we are going to be looking into these laws more, including where they might be used and why they are used so commonly nowadays. 

A bit more about the zero tolerance law

We’ve given you a quick definition of zero tolerance law, but what does it really mean? Well, if you are caught breaking a zero tolerance law you will not be given the opportunity to defend yourself – you will simply be given the penalty that comes with breaking that law. 

You might think that you have a good reason for breaking the law, but it won’t matter to people of power in the law world. You will be required to accept your penalty and carry out your punishment. 

The prime example of a zero tolerance law

The first law to be considered zero tolerance is driving under the influence below the age of 21. The idea behind this law is that it is illegal for people under the age of 21 to consume alcohol, so therefore it should be illegal for them to drive under the influence of any alcohol. 

While the minimum driving age in the US is 16, the minimum drinking age is 21. So, if you’re caught driving under the influence between the ages of 16 and 21, you’ll be found to be breaking the law.

The law of people under the age of 21 driving under the influence of any alcohol has now been passed in all 50 states. This is a zero tolerance law that gives out penalties for people illegally drinking and driving, even if they are under the blood alcohol content limit of 0.08%. 

Many states even go as far as to charge people under the age of 21 with a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) if they are found with a BAC of as low as 0.00%, which refers to even a hint of alcohol detected within your bloodstream. 

The history of zero tolerance laws

The above zero tolerance law is considered to be the first of its kind, being created in the 1980s. 

As drivers under the age of 21 are much more likely to be involved in fatal car crashes while driving under the influence of alcohol, a new law was passed. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act (1984) forced all 50 states to raise the legal drinking age to 21. 

Just four years after this law was passed, all of the states had successfully raised the legal drinking age. This then laid the groundwork for the first zero tolerance law to be formed – driving under the influence under the age of 21. 

Other examples of zero tolerance laws

Driving under the influence is not the only area in which zero tolerance laws can apply. They’re actually found in many other circumstances depending on the state that you commit the crime in. 

For example, some states have a zero tolerance law on driving while holding an open alcohol container. If you are found with an open container of alcohol in your car, you will be subjected to the penalty that your state puts with it. 

Even though you might believe that you have a good reason for the open container to be there, it doesn’t matter to the officer who is writing you up. Some reasons might be that it is an old container, that it was your friend’s who wasn’t driving, or that it broke open while you were driving. 

However, these excuses do not matter and there is often not a place for you to voice your concerns, so you’ll never be able to work your way around the zero tolerance law. #

Another popular zero tolerance law is the possession of weapons and drugs in schools. In the 1990s, these laws started being passed to keep students safe from harmful substances and weapons. 

Students would be expelled if they were caught with these possessions, and they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. 

It is worth noting that studies on this zero tolerance law have shown it to be widely ineffective at preventing drugs and weapons from being brought into schools. Research has even shown that this policy was being treated with racial inequalities, with black children being disciplined harsher than white children. 

The problem with zero tolerance laws

There are a few concerns arising from zero tolerance laws that should be addressed. However, as the laws are all about not accepting excuses and extenuating circumstances, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these are largely looked over. 

The first issue with these laws is that there are sometimes cases of extenuating circumstances that should be listened to. For example, a school might consider a pair of scissors to be a weapon, when the student brought them into school with no intention of using them that way. 

However, as the zero tolerance rules apply, this student would be suspended or expelled from school without being heard out. This can be harmful to their academic performance and self-efficacy. 

Some people might also have a reason for breaking another zero tolerance law that is worth considering, yet it won’t be due to the harshness of the law. 


Hopefully you’ve learned some valuable information about zero tolerance laws and why they are used. Driving under the influence while being younger than 21 years old is perhaps the most common zero tolerance law. 

Zero tolerance is taught from a young age, with it being commonly found in school districts. 

There are both positives and negatives for zero tolerance laws. They can be effective methods of deterrence, but they don’t allow for extenuating circumstances that should sometimes be listened to. 

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