Traditionally, a minor was any individual who was under the age of 21. This age has been changed by statute in almost every state.

In the majority of states, a minor is any individual who is under the age of 18. There are, however, some exceptions, such as in Alabama, where the age of majority is 19.

What are Underage Drinking Laws?

Underage drinking laws are laws which were designed to curb the prevalence of alcohol use in individuals under the age of 21. It is illegal for a minor to:

  • Possess alcohol;
  • Consume alcohol;
  • Purchase or attempt to purchase alcohol;
  • Possess a fake ID or misrepresent their age; and
  • Drive, even with a trace amount of alcohol in their blood, or blood alcohol content (BAC). The percentage permitted varies by state.

It is important to note that minors are not the only individuals who may be affected by underage drinking laws. Depending on the state law, an individual may be arrested, fined, and/or charged with a crime if they do any of the following:

  • Buy or give alcohol to a minor;
  • Allow a minor to consume alcohol on their property;
  • Allow a minor to use their ID; and
  • Sell alcohol to any individual under the age of 21, even if they misrepresent their age.

What are Minor in Possession Laws?

In numerous states, it is a crime for a minor simply to have alcohol or drugs in their possession, regardless of whether they were actually using the substances. These crimes are regulated under “Minor in Possession” (MIP) laws.

Minor in Possession (MIP) offenses occur when a minor possesses an alcoholic beverage in public while under the legal drinking age of 21. The term minor may be confusing because, in the majority of states, the individual is 18 years or older and, therefore, considered a legal adult.

Minor in possession laws may also be referred to as Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age (PAULA) laws, or underage drinking laws. A MIP offense is classified as a misdemeanor.

The penalties for a MIP offense range in severity depending upon the laws of the state. Certain states have exceptions where a parent may allow alcohol consumption by their children under their supervision.

It is also important to note that there may be exceptions for religious ceremonies. There are also related offenses, such as selling or providing alcohol to minors and creating and using fake identification to purchase alcohol.

In situations where an adult aided in the minor’s consumption of the alcohol, they may be liable for any crimes committed by the minor while under the influence. Some states will prosecute a minor to the full extent of the law.

In other states, MIP charges are treated differently and a minor will be permitted to participate in a court-ordered program to rehabilitate the minor and to prevent further criminal activity. MIP laws all have the same basic goal, which is to educate minors on the dangers of drinking and drug use as well as to help them obtain treatment for dependency.

MIP laws also apply to other criminal acts, including minors in possession of a gun or firearm.

What is Considered a Public Place?

What is considered a public place will vary by city, county, and state. A public place, however, is generally defined as any location that is open to the public, which may include:

  • Parks;
  • Bars and restaurants; and
  • Streets or highways.

Public places often also include sidewalks in front of privately owned property. Therefore, drinking on the sidewalk in front of a minor’s home may cause them to be in violation of local laws.

Can a Minor be Charged under MIP Laws even if They were not Intoxicated?

In many states, a minor is not required to be legally intoxicated in order to be found guilty of minor in possession of alcohol or drugs. In some states, a minor may be arrested simply if they appear to be intoxicated.

MIP laws can be enforced if the individual was younger than the legal drinking age in the state at the time of the citation and:

  • They were in possession of alcohol, or
  • Had attempted to purchase alcohol, or
  • Drank alcohol or appeared to be visibly intoxicated.

In addition, the minor is not required to be operating a motor vehicle to be found guilty of MIP. Depending on the circumstances of the case, a minor who is holding an unopened alcohol container while under the legal drinking age may face MIP charges or even DUI charges.

It is important to note that MIP laws may vary widely by state. An act which is committed in one state may not constitute MIP charges in another state, but those same actions in another state may lead to MIP charges.

What are the Consequences of Minor in Possession of Alcohol or Drugs Charges?

There are several possible legal consequences which may result from MIP charges, including:

  • Monetary fines;
  • Possible jail time;
  • Mandatory participation in a court-ordered rehabilitation or substance abuse educational program; and
  • Participation in community service activities.

Typically, MIP punishments are moderate for first-time offenders. Repeat convictions, however, may lead to increasingly severe penalties with each offense.

In addition, in certain states, MIP violations may lead to a loss of driving privileges. In California, for example, a first-time MIP offender may have their driver’s license suspended for one year.

If a minor does not yet have a driver’s license, a court may order the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to place a hold on issuing the individual a license until one year after their conviction.

What Factors Influence the Degree of Punishment?

The severity of the punishment imposed for a Minor in Possession conviction will depend on several factors. In addition, the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Therefore, even apparently identical situations may result in different punishments. Factors which may influence the degree of punishment may include:

  • The offender’s age;
  • Whether or not the minor was legally intoxicated at the time the offense occurred. Depending on the state, the limit may be the same as the adult legal intoxication limit. However, it may also be lower or be any blood alcohol level at all; and
  • Whether the minor has a history of similar offenses or other criminal charges.

Are There Any Defenses to Minor in Possession Laws?

Minor in Possession laws may be difficult to defend against. This is due to the facts that each state has different laws and a minor is not required to be intoxicated to be found guilty.

There are, however, some defenses which may be available, including:

  • There was no alcohol in the container. If the container the minor possessed did not contain alcohol, it may constitute a defense. The burden, however, is on the defendant to prove that no alcohol was present;
  • The consumption of alcohol was legal. Numerous states have exceptions to the legal drinking age, including a family member or specific location exceptions; and
  • Religious rites or services. There may be protections if alcohol was consumed as part of a religious ceremony, such as Communion wine. Religious rites and ceremonies, however, are narrowly defined by state statutes.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Minor in Possession Charges?

A violation of a Minor in Possession law may lead to serious legal consequences, which may have effects which last into the minor’s adult years. Because of this, it is helpful to consult with a juvenile lawyer if you or your child has been charged with MIP.

Your attorney can explain the MIP laws of your state, advise you on what defenses may be available, and represent you in court.