It's common knowledge that the legal drinking age in the United States is 21 and that all states make it illegal to sell alcohol to anyone who is underage. However, state prohibitions against underage drinking extend further than merely the sale of alcohol. All states also make it a crime to supply an underage person with alcohol even when there is no money involved.
- Supplying. All states prohibit providing alcohol to underage people. Regardless of whether a person sells it, gives it, provides it, or supplies it, the laws punish such activity as a crime. Even though the language that state laws use differs, all states prohibit anyone from knowingly supplying any underage person with alcoholic beverages
- Acts. A wide range of actions constitute “supplying” alcohol to an underage person. For example, allowing an underage person to be in a home where there is alcohol and not restricting access to it, placing an alcoholic beverage near an underage person with the intent to allow that person to drink, and buying alcohol and placing it in the underage person's vehicle all qualify as “supplying” alcohol to minors. You don't have to specifically hand over the alcohol or give it directly to the underage person to be convicted of supplying alcohol to a minor.
- Intent. While knowingly supplying a minor with alcohol does not have to involve money or overtly giving the alcohol to the underage person, the law does require that the accused knowingly provides the alcohol. This means that the accused intended to give the alcohol, or intended that his or her actions result in the underage person acquiring alcohol. Courts have held, for example, that you cannot be convicted of supplying alcohol to a minor if you are simply indifferent to an underage person drinking. Similarly, if you are a property owner and you grant your permission to have a party on that property knowing that underage people may be there, that is not enough to show that you intended to provide underage people with alcohol.
- License not required. The laws prohibiting supplying alcohol to minors apply to everyone, not just establishments that serve or sell alcohol. Courts have broadly applied these laws to include any act of providing alcohol to underage people, even when the person supplying the alcohol is another underage person.
- Exceptions. Supplying liquor to an underage person is allowed in some states in some situations. Some states have laws that allow parents or legal guardians to supply an underage person with alcohol in a home environment, as well as make exceptions if the alcohol is provided in a religious or medicinal situation. These laws may also allow an underage person to acquire, purchase, or procure alcohol. However, such home use or procurement must be supervised or performed in the presence of, and with the permission of, a parent, guardian, or (in a few states) someone acting in loco parentis.
Providing or supplying alcohol to a minor is typically punished as a misdemeanor offense. However, the crime may also be considered a felony depending on the circumstances of the case and the state in which it occurs. The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony offense typically rests on whether anyone was seriously injured or killed as a result of the illegal supplying of alcohol. Felony offenses can also result when a person has committed repeated offenses.
- Jail. Jail sentences for misdemeanor convictions of supplying alcohol to a minor can be as long as a year in a local jail, though shorter sentences of 60 days or less are more common. Felony convictions result in prison sentences of at least a year, and possibly five years or more.
- Fines. Like jail sentences, fines for supplying alcohol to a minor differ depending on the severity of the crime and the state in which you live, though fines can be steep for either. A misdemeanor conviction for supplying alcohol to an underage person can result in a fines up to $5,000, though fines of $500 to $1,000 are more common. Felony fines tend to be much higher and can exceed $50,000.
- Court costs. In addition to paying a fine, a person convicted of supplying alcohol to minor will also have to pay court fees. These costs differ significantly, though $100 to $200 or more in court costs are common.
- Probation. Probation sentences are also common for convictions of supplying alcohol to a minor, especially for first time offenders. Probation sentences typically last at least 12 months and require you to perform specific actions while on probation. You may, for example, have to report to a probation officer, maintain employment, and tell any law enforcement officers who question you that you are on probation.
- Other Penalties. In addition to the criminal penalties, businesses or organizations with a liquor license face additional administrative penalties if they supply alcohol to a minor. A licensed retailer or supplier who provides alcohol to a minor can have to pay administrative fines for each violation, with the fines getting higher the more violations that occur. Additionally, the state liquor administrative agency can suspend a licensee's liquor license, or even revoke it if there have been repeated violations.
Talk to a Lawyer
Supplying alcohol charges are serious, especially if your business depends on a liquor license or someone has been injured because of the teen's actions after consuming the alcohol. Even if you're being charged with a first offense, it's in your best interests to speak to a criminal defense attorney before you speak to the police, prosecutors, or anyone else. A criminal defense attorney not only knows how to protect your legal rights, but has personal experience with the local courts and prosecutors. You want a good attorney on your side so you can be protected at every stage of the criminal justice process.