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. You also can't sell or provide alcohol to an underage person. Anyone who sells or provides alcohol to a minor commits a crime regardless of the state, though state laws differ widely in their details.
This article will discuss the penalties for selling or providing alcohol to a minor. The term "minor" can be a bit misleading, as it typically refers to anyone younger than 18. But for liquor laws, minors include anyone younger than the legal drinking age of 21.
State laws prohibit selling or furnishing alcohol to minors. Some states use the terms provide or supply. No matter what terms are used, these laws prohibit any form of furnishing, giving, or providing liquor to minors, including when no money changes hands.
Selling alcohol is pretty straightforward. But what does it mean to supply or furnish alcohol to a minor? A wide range of actions actually. For instance, you supply alcohol by:
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.
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.
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.
It can be. 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. However, 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.
While some states prohibit anyone from providing alcohol to a minor, others 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 religious ceremonies or for medicinal purposes.
Most states punish the sale or furnishing 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. Felony penalties might apply if a defendant is a repeat offender or if the minor was seriously injured or killed as a result of the illegal supplying or selling of alcohol. Anyone convicted of selling or providing alcohol to a minor usually faces a range of penalties.
Misdemeanor offenses are defined as those that have a potential penalty of up to one year in a local jail. Not all convictions result in the maximum possible sentence. Providing alcohol to an underage person may result in a jail sentence of a few days or a few months or no jail at all.
Felony-level offenses carry the possibility of prison time, usually with maximum sentences of one to five years. The circumstances of the case and state law will determine what sentences are appropriate.
In lieu of, or in addition to, a jail or prison sentence, a court may impose a probation sentence for a conviction of selling or supplying alcohol to a minor. Probation terms typically last six to 12 months for misdemeanors, though they can be longer. Felony probation may last years. Defendants 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 or prison.
Like jail sentences, fines for selling or 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 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.
Establishments and organizations that sell alcohol must have a state liquor license. When licensed organizations sell alcohol to minors, either intentionally or unintentionally, they may lose their liquor license. The state liquor administrative agency can suspend a licensee's liquor license, or even revoke it if there have been repeated violations. A licensed retailer may also be subject to other penalties, such as administrative fines for each violation that occurred.
Criminal charges for supplying or selling alcohol to minors are serious, especially if your business depends on a liquor license or someone has been injured because of the minor'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 also 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.