A Minor in Possession (MIP) offense is the crime of possessing an alcoholic beverage (0.5% alcohol or more) in public while under the legal age of 21. The term “minor” is confusing, as the “minor” may be a legal adult in most U.S. states, being 18 years of age or older. These laws are also referred to as underage drinking laws, or Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age (PAULA) laws.

A Minor in Possession offense is a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging in severity depending upon individual state laws. Some states have exceptions where parents may allow alcohol consumption of their children under their supervision. There are also some exemptions for religious ceremonies.

Related offenses include selling alcohol or providing it to minors, and the creating and using of fake identification to procure alcohol. In cases where adults have aided in a minor’s alcohol consumption, they may be liable for any crimes committed by the minor while under the influence.

Background on MIP Laws

The 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution allows states to regulate alcohol-related issues themselves, including the sale of alcohol, and the penalties for MIP laws. However, it also mandates a legal drinking of age of 21. Therefore, although individual states could choose to set their drinking age lower, they generally do not, because doing so would likely result in sanctions and loss of funding from the federal government.

For the Purposes of MIP Laws, What Constitutes Possession?

Possession means you are drinking alcohol, or have a cup with an alcoholic beverage in your hands. It may also qualify as possession if you place the drink somewhere close to you (a table you are sitting next to, for example), within easy reach, if it is still obvious that the drink belongs to you.

The purchase or attempted purchase of alcohol by someone underage may also qualify as the offense of being a Minor in Possession.

Possession may also be “joint,” or shared among two or more people, if it is obvious that two or more underage people are sharing a drink. Each person may be charged with Minor in Possession.

What is a Public Place?

Whether a place is considered "public" will vary between states, cities, and counties. However, a public place is generally defined as any place that is open to the public, ranging from parks to bars/restaurants to streets or highways. This often includes sidewalks in front of privately owned property, so drinking on the sidewalk in front of your home may be a violation of your local laws.

What are the Penalties or Legal Consequences of an MIP if Convicted?

General penalties for an MIP conviction include:

  • Suspension of driver’s license for at least 30 days. Some states require multiple offenses for this, other require only one;
  • Offense on criminal record;
  • Jail Sentence;
  • Fines;
  • Enrollment in alcohol education programs;
  • Diversion Programs (leading to probation); and/or
  • Community Service.

What Factors Influence the Degree of Punishment?

The severity of the punishment depends on the variety of factors. Ultimately, the decision is also made on a case-by-case basis, and even identical situations may result in different punishments.

  • Offender’s age;
  • Whether the minor was legally intoxicated at the time of the offense; and 
    • Depending on the state, this may be the adult legal intoxication limit, but it may be lower, or any blood alcohol level at all.
  • Whether the minor has a history of similar offenses or other criminal charges.

What are Some Defenses to a Charge of Minor in Possession?

  • The underage person consumed alcohol legally; 
    • For example, if they consumed the alcohol in Canada, and were of legal drinking age there, then returned to a state where they are not of legal drinking age, this may be a defense.
  • The container the underage person was holding did not actually contain alcohol;
  • The under age person was participating in a religious ceremony that involves alcohol;
  • Possession of alcohol was related to the underage person’s employment (does not allow for consumption of alcohol).

What are the Goals of MIP Laws?

The first and most obvious goal of Minor in Possession laws is to prevent drinking by individuals under the legal drinking age. However, they also prevent underage people from committing crimes under the influence of alcohol.

This is particularly true for drinking and driving cases, and one of the aims of the laws is to educate minors about this issue. Additionally, the laws hopefully serve to provide minors with education about and treatment of alcohol dependence problems.

What Should I Do if I am Charged with a Minor In Possession?

States vary greatly in the details of their Minor in Possession law. If you are charged with a Minor in Possession, a criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your criminal charges, rights and possible legal defenses, and guide you through the complicated legal process.

Conviction of this crime can lead to serious consequences, despite the young age of those who are charged with it. It can also affect their possibilities for employment in the future. A lawyer or, possibly, a DUI lawyer can help navigate the situation and, hopefully, create the best possible outcome.