Underage drinking refers to minors consuming alcohol. In most states, minors become an adult when they reach eighteen years of age. However, it is illegal to consume alcohol if you are over the age of eighteen but under the age of 21, even though you are considered to be an adult.

Underage drinking laws are intended to reduce the numbers of alcohol use in people under 21 years of age. The following laws make it illegal for minors to:

  • Possess alcohol;
  • Consume alcohol;
  • Purchase or attempt to purchase alcohol;
  • Possess a fake ID or misrepresent their age; and
  • Drive with even a trace amount of blood alcohol content (“BAC”). This number varies from state to state.

There are some states that may allow exceptions to minimum drinking age laws. There are eight different circumstances that may present exceptions in which an underage person can consume alcohol. They are:

  • Parental Consent: The states that allow underage drinking with parental consent on private, non-alcohol selling premises are: AK, CO, CT, DE, GA, IL, IA, KS, LA, ME, MD, MA, MN, MS, MT, NE, NV, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, OR, SC, TX, VA, WA, WI, WY;
  • Private Setting: The six states that allow underage drinking without parental consent on private, non-alcohol selling premises are: LA, NE, NV, NJ, OK, SC;
  • Religious Ceremony: The states that allow underage drinking if done during a religious ceremony are: AZ, CO, CT, DE, GA, HI, IL, LA, MD, MI, MT, NE, NV, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OR, SC, SD, TN, UT, WA, WY;
  • Medical Purposes: There are sixteen states which allow underage drinking if done for medical purposes; meaning, with a doctor’s prescription. These states are: AK, AZ, CO, CT, GA, IA, LA, MT, NE, NV, NJ, NC, OH, UT, WA, WY;
  • Government Work Purposes: Four states allow underage drinking when done for government work purposes, such as when working with an undercover police officer. These states are: MI, MS, OR, SC;
  • Educational Purposes: The states that allow underage drinking for educational purposes are: CO, FL, IL, MI, MO, NJ, NY, NC, RI, SC, VT;
  • Emergency Call: These seventeen states allow an underage person who has been drinking to place an emergency 911 call on behalf of another underage drinker: CA, CO, DE, DC, IN, KY, MI, MN, NJ, NY, NC, ND, OK, PA, TX, UT, VT, WA; and
  • Alcohol-Selling Premises: States that allow underage drinking while on premises that sell alcohol, with parental approval are: CT, KS, LA, MA, MS, NV, OH, TX, WI, WY

It is important to note that regardless of these exceptions, all other drinking laws apply to minors. Examples would include sales of alcohol and DUI laws.

What Are Some Underage Drinking Accident Statistics for the United States?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), alcohol is the most commonly used substance among young people within the United States. Those who participate in underage drinking are more likely to experience the following:

  • Higher rates of school absence;
  • Higher rates of lower grades;
  • Increased social problems, such as fighting at school;
  • Legal problems related to being arrested for underage drinking;
  • Unwanted, unplanned, and/or unprotected sexual activity;
  • Disruption of normal growth or development;
  • Physical and sexual violence;
  • Higher risk of suicide and homicide;
  • Higher rates of auto accidents;
  • Higher rates of unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, and drowning;
  • Increased memory problems when compared to minors who do not participate in underage drinking;
  • Increased rates of misusing other substances;
  • Changes in brain development; and/or
  • Alcohol poisoning.

There are an estimated 10.8 million underage drinkers in the United States, with one out of every six teenagers engaged in some form of binge drinking. These statistics become even more concerning when considering driving under the influence cases. In the United States, nearly 1/3 of all fatal drunk-driving cases involve people aged 16-20. Below are some statistics regarding underage drinking accidents.

Underage Drinking in General:

  • An estimated 5,000 people under the age of 21 die every year from drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and alcohol-related accidents such as drowning or burns;
  • In 2008, over 190,000 persons under the age of 21 made an emergency room visit for alcohol-related accidents; and
  • Although young people drink less frequently than adults, they tend to drink more in quantity than adults consume. The average minor consumes about five drinks when they drink, which is considered to be binge drinking.

Underage Drinking and Driving Statistics:

  • Driving with a blood alcohol content of over .08 is considered to constitute alcohol impaired driving. Thirty-three percent of drivers aged 15-20 years old, who were killed in car crashes in 2009, had a BAC of .01. Additionally, 28% of young drivers had a BAC of greater than or equal to .08;
  • Obviously, car accidents become more serious when alcohol is involved. In 2009, 2% of the 15-20 year olds involved in accidents that only caused property damage were intoxicated, while 4% of young drivers involved in crashes resulting in physical injury were intoxicated. 24% of young drivers involved in a fatal car crash had been intoxicated;
  • In 2009, up to 60% of drivers under the age of 21 involved in a fatal car crash were not properly restrained at the time of the accident. When teenagers are under the influence of alcohol, they may be more careless in terms of personal safety; and
  • Minimum drinking age laws are estimated to save around 600-700 lives every year. Additionally, it is estimated that they reduce fatal accidents among people between 18 and 21 years by 13%.

What Are Some of the Consequences for Underage Drinking?

Consequences for underage drinking, as well as drinking and driving, will vary from state to state. The consequences can also vary according to the minor’s blood alcohol content level, and whether they are a repeat offender. However, the law takes underage drinking seriously; as such, consequences generally include:

  • Suspension of driver’s license;
  • Mandatory community service; and
  • A mandatory alcohol awareness class and training.

Fines and jail sentences are common consequences for underage drinking. Once again, the specific amount will vary from state to state. For example, in Alabama, the fine ranges from $25-$100, and a jail sentence can last up to thirty days. In Wyoming, the same charge would be punished as a misdemeanor crime.

Do I Need an Attorney for Underage Drinking Accidents?

If your child is under the legal drinking age as dictated by your state, and they have been involved in an accident, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney in your area. As previously mentioned, there are many factors related to underage drinking and accidents that vary widely from state to state.

As such, a local and experienced criminal defense attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s laws regarding underage drinking, as well as your child’s legal rights. An attorney will help guide you through the criminal defense process.

An attorney can review the legal facts of the case and determine what legal defenses are available, if any. They will represent your child in court as needed, while protecting their legal rights. An attorney may also be able to have any resulting criminal sentencing reduced.

It is important to talk with your teenagers regarding their alcohol use. Recent studies have determined that early parental intervention can greatly reduce the likelihood of teenagers becoming involved in underage drinking.