Minor in Possession of Alcohol: How State Laws Differ

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By George Khoury, Esq. on December 13, 2016 2:57 PM

One of the most frequently enforced criminal laws against minors is underage drinking. On college campuses across the country, police departments are ready to surprise party-goers under the legal drinking age with arrests for being underage and under the influence. While college students are usually all over 18 years old, the legal drinking age is still 21, and as such, anyone under 21 who is caught drinking or possessing alcohol can be arrested for a minor in possession (MIP).

What comes as a shock to most is that in nearly every state, a person under the age of 21 can be arrested merely for holding an alcoholic beverage in public. It doesn't matter if the bottle of alcohol is sealed shut, or belongs to another person. In most states, law enforcement doesn't even have to see alcohol to make an arrest. Merely being intoxicated or registering a BAC above 0 can lead to a minor's arrest for MIP. While most states have strict laws prohibiting minors from possessing, buying, or drinking alcohol, punishments vary from state to state.

Driving Privileges Can Be Suspended

Some states have harsher penalties than others. In California, for instance, if a person under the age of 21 is charged with a MIP, they will be facing an automatic license suspension, even on a first offense, on top of fines and other penalties. And if the person doesn't have a driver's license, they will have to wait a full year before they can get one. States like Illinois, Alabama, and many others, impose shorter license suspensions that get progressively longer for repeat offenses.

Collateral Consequences

Getting a minor in possession charge and losing driving privileges can have a massive impact on a person's life. Many of the states that automatically suspend driver's licenses for MIP charges also do not allow for hardship licenses (commonly referred to as restricted or 'school/work only' licenses). This will mean that getting to school or work will be much more difficult and potentially costly.

Some States Penalize Minors Drinking More Than Others

In states like Maryland, however, the law provides that law enforcement cannot actually stop a person for a MIP unless they actually see the minor drinking an alcoholic beverage. Additionally, Maryland's penalties for a MIP do not even rise to level of a misdemeanor.

Also, some states, or even local court branches, may have court diversion programs available for young or juvenile offenders. A court diversion program allows a young or first time offender to avoid a criminal record by completing a court ordered sentence in exchange for the charges being dropped.

Because enforcement and penalties vary widely from state to state, and even within states, hiring an attorney to help with a MIP charge can end up being a financially smart move, as well as generally a good idea.

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