Underage-drinking laws and other criminal statutes punish minors who are illegally in possession of alcohol. (These are sometimes called minor-in-possession or "MIP" laws.) Related laws punish older people who sell or serve alcohol to minors. (Laws also penalize the creation, possession, and use of fake identification.)
Many defendants in MIP cases are younger than the drinking age, but nevertheless "adults." For information on what happens when juveniles commit crime, check out our overview of juvenile court.
The legal drinking age in all states is 21. Under most states' MIP laws, when a person under the legal drinking age is found to have been in possession of alcohol, punishment can take a number of forms. These include:
Factors that can influence the punishment include the offender's age, whether the minor was legally intoxicated at the time of the offense, and whether the minor has a history of minor-in-possession offenses or any other past illegal behavior.
The law in most states also makes it a crime for people of legal drinking age (for example, friends or store clerks) to give alcohol to or buy it on behalf of those under the drinking age. However, in some states, it's legal for a parent or legal guardian to serve alcohol to his or her child, so long as the child consumes it in the adult's presence in either a private location or the family residence. Certain states also make other exceptions—for example, when minors possess (but don't consume) alcohol during employment or consume it during religious ceremonies. (See, for example, Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-3-412, Tex. Alco. Bev. Code Ann. § 106.05, and Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25658.2 (2014).)
Example 1: In view of a liquor store clerk, teenager Eddie Haskell solicits adults to buy him a six-pack of beer. Ward Cleaver agrees to do so. Haskell hands Cleaver the money, Cleaver purchases the beer, and Cleaver gives the beer to Haskell. Haskell is guilty of violating minor-in-possession law and Cleaver and the store clerk are guilty of providing Haskell with alcohol.
Example 2: Jim and Margaret Anderson throw a graduation party for their 17-year-old son, Bud. The Andersons serve beer and wine, figuring that if Bud and his friends are going to drink alcohol, better that they do it in the Anderson home with the Andersons present. One of the teenage guests leaves the party and, while driving under the influence, strikes and severely injures a pedestrian. In most states, Margaret and Jim are guilty of providing a minor with alcohol, and they may be civilly liable for the injuries to the pedestrian. Depending on state law, Margaret and Jim may face additional criminal charges for having allowed a minor whom they served alcohol to cause an accident by driving while drunk. (See, for example, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25658.2 (2014).)
Texas: Minors who purchase or consume alcohol are guilty of a Class C misdemeanor. A first or second offense is punishable by a fine up to $500, enrollment in an alcohol awareness class, performance of eight to 12 hours (or 20 to 40 hours for a second offense) of community service, and suspension of the minor's driver's license for 30 days (or 60 days for a second offense). Third and subsequent offenses are punishable by a fine of $250 to $2,000, up to 180 days in jail, enrollment in an alcohol awareness class, and the suspension of the minor's driver's license for 180 days. (See the statutes for certain penalty exemptions.) (Tex. Alco. Bev. Code Ann. § § 106.04, 106.05, 106.071, 106.115 (2014).)
An experienced criminal defense attorney is your best bet for a full explanation of the law that applies in your state and to your or your loved one's case. You can start a search for one with Nolo's Lawyer Directory using the tool below.