The information provided in this article is designed to be of an educational nature and is not intended to be used as legal advice. Any individual who seeks legal advice should consult with a licensed attorney.
Laws that provide sanctions for individuals under the age of 21 who are in possession of alcohol vary from state to state. These laws are often referred to as Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age (PAULA laws) or Minor in Possession Laws (MIP laws). In numerous cases people, who are charged with MIP cases may actually be legal adults (between the ages of 18 and 21), but are still defined as minors in terms of the ability to possess or consume alcohol. There are a related group of statutes and laws that provide sanctions to individuals who either serve or sell alcoholic beverages to individuals who are deemed to be minors.
The Origin of Statutes Related to Alcohol Possession
The federal policies that determine alcohol-related issues all stem from the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in America. While the federal government generally oversees the basic issues associated with the sale and possession of alcohol, this amendment also allows each state:
- The ability to regulate the sale of alcohol within state borders
- The power to define regulations regarding importing alcohol into the state
- The power to regulate the distribution of alcohol within state boundaries
The establishment of a uniform legal age to possess or drink alcoholic beverages was mandated by the federal government as a result of the 1984 Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act. This act established a national minimal legal age of 21 as the minimal age when individuals can drink alcohol. In addition, except under specific circumstances, the possession of alcoholic beverages is also regulated, such that only individuals over the age of 21 are allowed to be in possession of alcoholic beverages according to this act.
Individual states can deviate from this policy; however, if they do so, they are subject to sanctions by the federal government, which most often results in a significant loss of federal funding. Thus, with a few specialized exceptions, states adhere to this minimal legal age of possession and use of alcoholic beverages.
How Are ‘Alcoholic’ Beverages and ‘Possession’ Defined?
According to the Drinking Age Act, alcoholic beverages are formally defined as any beverages of any name or description that contain at least 0.5 percent alcohol per volume. This definition includes any mixture, process, source, etc., that produces a beverage with a volume of alcohol at this level or higher.
Under the federal act, the term possession is not applied if:
- The use of alcohol by a minor is for an established religious reason as long as the minor is accompanied by a spouse, legal guardian, or parent who is over the age of 21 (The definition of what constitutes a legal guardian can vary slightly from state to state.)
- The alcohol is administered by a licensed physician, nurse, dentist, medical institution, or pharmacist and the administration is for medicinal reasons (only includes very specialized cases)
- Possession occurs as a result of being employed by a licensed retailer, wholesaler, manufacturer, or establishment that is licensed to serve alcohol (This still does not allow the individual to consume alcohol.)
Different States Regulate Underage Possession and Underage Drinking Differently
Different states may vary significantly in how they regulate the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages as defined under the Constitution of the United States (under the 21st Amendment). Individual states will also address a number of activities, and there can be significant variation. Some of these issues are outlined below.
- The sale of alcohol to individuals under the age of 21 is regulated. In most states, individuals are prohibited to sell, provide, or otherwise give alcohol to anyone under the age of 21 except under very specific and defined circumstances.
- Licensed vendors are almost universally prohibited from selling alcohol to individuals under the age of 21.
- Some states limit consumption of alcohol by individuals under the age of 21 to very specific circumstances as mentioned above and below.
- Some states limit or prohibit the possession of alcohol by individuals under the age of 21 except for very circumscribed and well-defined situations, such as being employed in an establishment that sells or serves alcohol.
- The legal age to serve or sell alcohol will vary from state to state, and may also vary under specific conditions or due to the business involved. For instance, some states may allow individuals under the age of 21 to sell alcohol in retail establishments, but may not allow individuals within this age group to serve alcohol in bars where the primary purpose of the business is to serve alcohol.
- Some states may allow minors between 18 and 21 years old to use alcohol under the supervision of their parents or legal guardian, whereas other states may prohibit consumption regardless of the specific circumstances.
- In the majority of states, it is a separate offense for individuals under the age of 21 to misrepresent their actual age in order to buy or obtain alcoholic beverages. These laws represent separate charges from minor in possession charges and may have significantly different sanctions.
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Different states will have different laws that apply to both a minor who has intentionally obtained an alcoholic beverage and the individual/provider who has provided the minor with the alcohol. Penalties for minors vary significantly from state to state.
- In some states, minors may be charged with criminal offenses, and most often, these are misdemeanors.
- Penalties for violating MIP can vary significantly from state to state but typically include one or more of the following:
- Revocation of the person’s driver’s license (if they have one)
- Imposition of monetary fines
- Mandatory enrollment in an alcohol education program
- Community service
- Possible incarceration
- In some states or jurisdictions, charges may be dropped or removed from the individual’s record if they successfully complete an alcohol education program, perform community service, and/or incur no further similar violations for an established period of time (most often determined by the court).
- There may be significant variability in the enforcement of penalties from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even from case to case, depending on the circumstances. For example, individuals under the age of 21 who are involved in accidents or events that result in injuries or property damage may be treated more harshly than individuals who are just arrested with alcoholic beverages on their person.
- The federal government has established a blood alcohol level of 0.08 as the standard definition of legal intoxication. Most states under most conditions abide by the standard; however, any positive blood alcohol level in an individual under the age of 21 is considered illegal in most states and jurisdictions under most circumstances. Again, there can be significant variability regarding this issue.
Individuals who face minor in possession charges may find that proper legal representation can significantly reduce any fines or penalties they may be faced with. Again, this situation will vary greatly depending on the state, jurisdiction, and situation as well as the individual’s past record of offenses. Certain states are far more aggressive than others regarding MIP offenses.
In order to determine the actual statutes in a state, one can refer to the state website for further information regarding the policies that define the possession of alcohol by an individual under the age of 21. In addition, individuals facing minor in possession charges are strongly advised to have proper legal representation and to seek advice from licensed attorneys.