There are big differences between being charged with DUI and being charged with underage DUI. Perhaps most obvious, the BAC thresholds are different. If you are 21 or older, you are unlikely to be charged with DUI if you have a BAC of, say, 0.04, unless it has come in tandem with behaviors such as excessive speeding or highly-reckless driving.
On the other hand, if you are under 21, you are subject to zero-tolerance laws. In other words, you can be accused of driving intoxicated if you have a BAC as low as 0.01 percent. The "good" news: If your BAC is 0.01 to 0.05, you likely will not face criminal DUI charges, although you stand to lose your ability to drive legally for one year. With a BAC above 0.05, you do face criminal DUI charges, and with a BAC above 0.08 percent, all the penalties an adult driver would.
This system may or may not seem fair. Younger people's brains are still developing, and research indicates that brain development is not complete until age 25. With this in mind, do judges tend to be more understanding and lenient of college students charged with DUI?
They can be
Yes, some judges can be more lenient, but as with many situations, it depends on the circumstances. For example, if you are 19, have prior trouble with the law and police say that your BAC was 0.12, you could be in for a difficult time persuading a judge that you made an honest mistake owing to your youth. On the other hand, if it is your first brush with the law and your BAC was 0.06, you may have an easier time of it.
In California, if your BAC is less than 0.05, you can lose your license, but not face jail time or a criminal charge.
If your BAC was between 0.05 and 0.08, you may face consequences adults would not. You risk a criminal charge, the loss of your license for one year and DUI classes, but jail time should not happen. Above 0.08, you are looking at possible jail time and hefty fines/fees.
The takeaway is that while some judges can be more understanding than others, they do often follow guidelines. It is imperative to have a lawyer advocate for you in court no matter what and to get your charges reduced or dismissed if possible.