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, i.e.18 years of age or older. Minor in possession laws are also referred to as “underage drinking laws”, or “possession of alcohol under the legal age” (PAULA) laws.

An MIP offense is a misdemeanor in some states, a civil offense only in others. Penalties range in severity depending on state law. Related offenses include selling alcohol or providing it to minors, and the creation and use of fake identification to procure alcohol. If 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

Twenty-four states allow underage drinking, if it is done with the consent of the minor’s parents on private premises where alcohol is not sold. The states are:

  • Alaska;
  • Colorado;
  • Connecticut;
  • Delaware;
  • Georgia;
  • Illinois;
  • Iowa;
  • Kansas;
  • Maine;
  • Maryland;
  • Massachusetts,
  • Minnesota;
  • Mississippi;
  • Montana;
  • Nevada;
  • New Mexico;
  • New York;
  • Ohio;
  • Oregon;
  • Texas;
  • Virginia;
  • Washington;
  • Wisconsin;
  • Wyoming.

Underage drinking on private property where alcohol is not sold is allowed without parental consent in six states, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Some states allow underage drinking if it is done with a doctor’s prescription. If the underage consumption of alcoholic beverages is done for the purposes of government employment, 4 states allow it; they are Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and South Carolina.

Eleven states allow underage drinking for educational purposes. Seventeen states allow an underage person who has been drinking to make a 911 call on behalf of another underage drinker. And 10 states allow underage drinking if done on premises that sell alcohol, with parental approval; those states are Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

In California, for example, being a minor in possession of alcohol is a crime. Minors under 21 cannot possess alcoholic beverages in any public place. The crime is a misdemeanor that is punished by community service and a fine.

California law prohibits parents from allowing children to consume alcohol in their homes, so Ihe owner of a residence may face criminal charges as well, if they allow underage drinking. And a business owner who allows a minor to consume alcohol on the premises of their business also faces prosecution under California’s Business and Professions Code, which prohibits selling or furnishing alcohol to a minor. Finally, both parents and business owners could be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor for allowing underage drinking on their premises.

While the punishment for MIP seems minimal, i.e. a fine and community service, it is important to keep in mind that the crime is a misdemeanor, so conviction would become part of a perpetrator’s permanent criminal record.

In New York state, a minor may not buy or possess alcohol with the intent to consume it, with two exceptions. Furnishing alcohol to a minor is also illegal in New York state with two exceptions. The crime is a civil offense only, however. It is punishable by a fine of up to $50. An offender may be required to participate in an alcohol awareness program and may be ordered to do up to 30 hours of community service..

The exceptions are as follows:

  • Educational Programs: Students are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages in educational courses, but only if it is a requirement of the course, and it is done for educational purposes only during class time. The course must be licensed or registered by the state department of education;
  • Adult Family Members: A minor’s parent or guardian may provide them with alcohol and allow them to consume it.

For the Purposes of MIP Laws, What Constitutes Possession?

Possession means a person is drinking alcohol, or has a container of an alcoholic beverage in their hands. It may also qualify as possession, if a person places a drink somewhere close to them, within easy reach, if it is still clear that the drink belongs to the person.

The crime of MIP might also be committed by a minor purchasing or attempting to purchase alcohol.

Possession may also be “joint,” or shared among two or more people, if it is obvious that two or more underage people are sharing an alcoholic beverage, e.g. passing a bottle of beer between them, each person may be charged with MIP.

What Is a Public Place?

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

What Are the Penalties for an MIP Conviction?

General penalties for an MIP conviction include:

  • Suspension of the offender’s driver’s license for 30 days. Some states require multiple offenses before a driver’s license would be suspended. Others require only one;
  • Conviction may appear on a person’s permanent criminal record;
  • A sentence of time in jail may be imposed;
  • A fine may be imposed;
  • Enrollment in an alcohol education program may be required;
  • A person may be directed to a diversion program, leading to probation;
  • A person may be required to complete specified hours of community service.

What Factors Influence the Degree of Punishment?

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

  • A court may consider the perpetrator’s age;
  • A court may consider whether the minor was legally intoxicated at the time of the offense.
    • Depending on the state, the definition of intoxication for adults may apply or the limit may be lower. Or, evidence of any blood alcohol content at all may qualify as intoxication;
  • A court may consider whether the minor has similar offenses or other criminal charges on their criminal record.

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

Possible defenses are:

  • The underage person consumed alcohol legally: For example, it may be a defense to show that the underage person consumed the alcohol in Canada and was of legal drinking age there, then returned to a state where they are not of legal drinking age;
  • 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;
  • The possession of alcohol was related to the underage person’s employment: This defense would not excuse the consumption, only the possession of alcohol.

What Are the Goals of MIP Laws?

The first and most obvious goal of MIP laws is to prevent drinking by people who are under the legal drinking age. However, they also contribute to preventing underage people from committing crimes while under the influence of alcohol, e.g. driving while under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI).

One of the aims of the laws is to educate minors about the issue of drinking and driving. 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 Minor In Possession?

States vary greatly in the details of their MIP law as can be seen from the examples noted above. If you have been charged with being a minor in possession, a juvenile lawyer can help you understand the criminal charges, your rights and possible legal defenses. A lawyer can guide you through the legal process to the best possible conclusion of your case.

Conviction of this crime can lead to a permanent criminal record in some states, despite the young age of those who are charged with it. It can also affect their possibilities for employment in the future. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help navigate the situation, and, hopefully, create the best possible outcome.