Selling Alcohol to Minors and the Law

It's no secret to every teenager and young adult that you have to be 21 before you can legally drink, buy, or own alcohol. Though each state has its own laws about alcohol, all states require that people must be 21 before they can legally purchase alcohol

It's no secret to every teenager and young adult that you have to be 21 before you can legally drink, buy, or own alcohol. Though each state has its own laws about alcohol, all states require that people be 21 before they can legally purchase alcohol. A person who sells alcohol to a minor commits a crime regardless of the state, though state laws differ widely in their details.

  • Selling or Providing. State laws prohibit the sale of alcohol to minors, but “sale” includes a lot more than simply selling a drink to an underage person. The law prohibits any form of furnishing or providing liquor to minors, including when no money changes hands. Courts have ruled that selling or giving alcohol counts as providing, as does holding a “house party” where liquor is easily available, or allowing an underage person to drink from a pitcher that a person of legal drinking age purchased.
  • Minors. The prohibition against selling alcohol to minors includes both adults under the age of 21 and juveniles (people under the age of 18). For this reason, many state laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol to “underage persons” or minors, though the terms are synonymous.
  • Mistake of age. In many situations, minors might try to obtain liquor by using fake IDs, lying about their age, or through other methods of appearing older than they are. States approach this situation very differently. In some states, the law requires the seller to take specific steps, such as inspecting a buyer's identification and even requiring the buyer to fill out a declaration of age. As long as the seller takes this step and still sells alcohol to a minor, sellers can avoid a conviction by showing they took all the required steps. In other states, selling to a minor is a strict liability offense. This means that if a seller sold alcohol to a minor, it doesn't matter what steps the seller took, as any sale to a minor is prohibited. Still other states allow a mistake about the buyer's age to factor into a court's decision when it determines what sentence is appropriate.
  • Parents. While some states prohibit anyone from providing alcohol to a minor, other states provide an exception for parents or legal guardians. In states with a parental exception, parents or legal guardians can provide an underage person alcohol in a home environment as long as the parent or guardian is present at the time. Similar exceptions are also made for alcohol used in a religious ceremonies or for medicinal purposes.


Most states punish the sale of alcohol to minors as a misdemeanor. However, state laws on alcohol sales to minors differ significantly, and the potential penalties involved can be very different between one state and another. Anyone convicted of selling or providing alcohol to a minor usually faces a range of penalties.

  • Jail. Misdemeanor offenses are defined as those that have a potential penalty of up to one year in a local jail or state prison. Providing alcohol to an underage person may result in a jail sentence of up to a year, a much lighter sentence, or no jail at all. The circumstances of the case and state law will determine what sentences are appropriate.
  • Fines. Fines are a common penalty for anyone convicted of selling alcohol to a minor. The amount of the fine varies broadly, but can be as much as several thousand dollars per violation.
  • Probation. In lieu of, or in addition to, a jail sentence, a court may impose a probation sentence for a conviction of selling alcohol to a minor. Probation terms typically last six to 12 months, though they can be longer. Someone on probation must usually regularly report to a probation officer and meet other specific requirements as imposed by the court. Failing to comply with any requirement may result in a court ordering the convicted person to jail.
  • Liquor license revocation. Establishments and organizations who sell or provide alcohol must have a state liquor license. When licensed organizations sell alcohol to minors, either intentionally or unintentionally, they may lose their liquor license. They may also be subject to other penalties, such as fines. However, individual state regulations differ significantly about what penalties licensed organizations can face if they sell alcohol to minors, especially if they do so unintentionally.

Talk to a Lawyer

Selling alcohol to a minor is a misdemeanor offense, but it can have serious consequences on your life. You owe it to yourself to talk to a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as you are charged with any crime. Because the laws about providing liquor to an underage person are so different among the states, only an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area will be able to advise you about your individual case.

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