Underage Drinking and Minor-in-Possession Laws

Minor-in-possession laws prohibit underage drinking, as well as selling or furnishing alcohol to anyone younger than 21.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Minor-in-possession laws refer to statutes that prohibit underage drinking or possession of alcohol by individuals younger than 21 (the legal drinking age). These laws also make it a crime for someone to serve, sell, or provide alcohol to an underage person. All states have MIP laws. (If they don't, they risk losing federal funding.)

The term "minor" can be a bit misleading in this context, as it generally refers to anyone younger than 18. But for alcohol-related offenses, it refers to the legal drinking age and not the age of legal adulthood.

For purposes of this article, "minor" and "underage person" will both mean individuals younger than 21.

What Are Minor-in-Possession Laws?

Minor-in-possession (MIP) laws (also called underage drinking laws) make it a crime for underage persons to possess or consume alcohol. Alcohol includes wine, beer, intoxicating liquors, and fermented beverages.

Possession or Consumption of Alcohol by a Minor

To be caught "in possession," the cop doesn't need to see the minor with the alcoholic beverage in hand or drinking it. Possession can be actual (drink in hand) or constructive (drink close by). A prosecutor can show constructive possession by showing the minor had knowledge of, and immediate control over, the area where the alcohol was found.

When it comes to consumption of alcohol, any amount triggers a violation. The minor doesn't need to be intoxicated or register a certain blood alcohol concentration.

Exceptions to Minor-in-Possession Crimes

Some common exceptions to a MIP violation include consuming alcohol in the following circumstances:

  • as part of a religious ceremony if accompanied by a parent or guardian
  • in a private residence if given to them by their parent or guardian and consumed in their presence, or
  • for medical purposes and taken as prescribed.

In some circumstances, minors may possess alcohol in the performance of their job, although most places require underage persons to be at least 19 to sell, serve, or deliver alcohol.

What Are the Penalties for Minor-in-Possession Violations?

Most often, a MIP violation is a misdemeanor. If the underage person tried to purchase alcohol or used a fake identification (ID), additional penalties may apply.

The same penalty applies regardless of the age of the offender. However, violations by minors younger than 18 will be handled differently than those committed by adults (ages 18, 19, and 20). Adults will have their cases heard in adult court and, if found guilty, will end up with a conviction on their record. Juveniles fall under the juvenile court jurisdiction and often receive an adjudication of delinquency (or something similar).

Punishment can take a number of forms depending on the facts of the case, the age of the defendant, and the defendant's history of prior offenses.

Juvenile and Adult Penalties

In both juvenile and adult court, the judge can generally order:

Juvenile court. A juvenile court judge might also order the minor to attend school if they've been truant. Notification to the school of the MIP violation is also common. Juvenile judges can also issue orders pertaining to the juvenile's parent or guardian. For instance, the judge could order family counseling.

Adult court. Adult court judges can order jail time, but time behind bars is usually unlikely unless the person was highly intoxicated, damaged property or drove in addition to drinking, or has a history of other offenses.

Deferred Adjudication or Diversion

Some prosecutors or judges may offer the underage person a chance to avoid a delinquency adjudication or adult conviction through diversion or deferred adjudication. To take advantage of these options, the underage defendant will typically need to agree to comply with terms set by the prosecutor's office or the court. Conditions often include obeying all laws, going to counseling, attending educational courses on alcohol abuse, paying fines and fees, and doing a community service project. If successful, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss the charges or the court might dismiss the case.

What Are the Penalties for Serving or Providing Alcohol to a Minor?

The MIP laws in most states also make it a crime for someone to give or sell alcohol to, or buy it on behalf of, those under the drinking age. While these crimes tend to fall under the umbrella of MIP violations, they carry stiffer consequences.

Penalties for serving, selling, or furnishing alcohol to a minor can result in a misdemeanor or, sometimes, felony penalties. Felony penalties might apply to repeat violations or to a violation resulting in an underage person becoming intoxicated and suffering great harm or death as a result. If a store clerk or bartender sold the alcohol, the store or bar could lose their liquor license and face substantial fines on top of the individual criminal penalties.

When it comes to selling alcohol, most states require sellers to verify the buyer's age and proof of valid ID. Claiming ignorance of the person's age won't generally work as a defense to any of the above offenses. Sellers are allowed to deny a sale if they have any reason to doubt the validity of the ID or the buyer's age. But if a seller reasonably believed the ID was legitimate and the underage person was of age, the law may allow the seller to raise this issue as a defense.

Learn More and Get Help

If you face charges, contact a criminal defense attorney right away. Your attorney can help you understand the consequences at stake and review your options.

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