Minor in possession (MIP) laws (sometimes called underage drinking laws) target sales of alcohol to minors and public possession of alcohol by minors. Since the passage in 1984 of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, all states have had to raise their minimum drinking age to 21. States that did not risked losing federal funds. All states presently comply with the Drinking Age Act. (23 U.S.C. § 158.)
Importantly, the national law and most state counterparts target public possession, not private possession (although some states have additional laws concerning alcohol possessed or consumed on private property).
The Drinking Age Act defines "alcohol" as:
All states may regulate alcohol distribution and sale (under the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which repealed Prohibition). States also address underage drinking by targeting a number of activities.
Common regulations include:
Under the Drinking Age Act and many state laws, certain instances of private possession of alcohol by a minor do not fall under the laws' prohibitions, such as:
State laws punish both the provider of the alcohol and the minor who has intentionally obtained it.
Minors who break the law may be charged with criminal offenses, and if convicted, face jail sentences, fines, diversion programs (supervised counseling, which often results in dropped charges if the minor participates successfully in the program), and sentences such as a number of hours of community service.
Vendors who sell or give alcohol to minors may be violating state and/or local criminal law, as well as state administrative codes. Criminal penalties may include fines and jail time. Administrative consequences can include license revocations, fines, suspensions of the right to sell or serve alcohol, or the revocation of alcohol licenses. In states that prohibit private consumption, social hosts of private parties may face jail or fines.
Some states are more aggressive than others in regulating sales to and possession by minors. For example:
Minors who are charged with MIP, particularly when it's the first time, may receive counseling, community service, or other non-punitive sentences. Minors in other states may face stiffer consequences. And besides the letter of the law, the approach of local police, prosecutors, and judges will determine to a large degree how these cases are handled. A lot depends on the local political and social view of underage drinking.
Because the local response to MIP is so important to know, it may be a good idea to at least consult with a local lawyer who is familiar with how these cases are handled in your city or area. You may learn that it should not be necessary, given your circumstances, to hire counsel to represent you. Or, you may decide that the outcome is uncertain and the stakes are high, making representation throughout the course of the case a good idea.
When deciding whether to hire counsel, consider whether there's a good chance of a better result with counsel than if you were to handle the case yourself. Keep in mind that some convictions will have a negative impact on the minor's insurance premiums (and possibly the parents' premiums as well), and that a license suspension may make it hard to get to school or to a job. This seemingly-minor charge can actually have quite an impact.