For many people, taking their first sip of an alcoholic beverage is considered a memorable rite of passage – however, it isn’t always a legal one. Though the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the United States is 21 years, 63.2 percent of students from ninth to 12th grade have consumed at least one alcoholic beverage. Unfortunately, underage drinkers are likelier to experience a whole host of issues, including problems in school, social challenges, physical ailments, and legal issues.
To learn more about the legal consequences of underage purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol across the United States, we analyzed data from the Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS). Which states have the strictest (and most lenient) laws? Where are underage offenders most likely to experience lengthy driver’s license suspensions, confiscation of fake identifications, and even legal action? And how might these consequences affect underage drinking rates in each state? Read on for a comprehensive look at underage drinking laws across the country.
Losing Driving Privileges for Alcohol Possession
Every state prohibits alcohol possession by a person under 21 years of age. However, each state sets its own driving-related penalties (driver’s license suspension or revocation) for the first offense of minors convicted of alcohol possession: License suspension refers to loss of privileges for a set period followed by reinstatement; revocation refers to loss of driving privileges for a set period followed by the opportunity to reapply for a license.
Overall, 15 states do not currently have mandatory or discretionary laws regarding the loss of driving privileges. Except Alaska, most of these states are located on the eastern side of the country: specifically the South Atlantic, West North Central, East North Central, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and East South Central regions.
The state with the harshest potential punishment for minors convicted of alcohol possession is Nevada, where license privileges are mandatorily removed for 90 to 730 days. California, Oregon, Utah, Tennessee, and Washington impose a mandatory 365-day driving ban, while Idaho imposes a mandatory ban that last up to 365 days. In New Hampshire and South Dakota, discretionary penalties range up to a 365-day loss of license. In Virginia, offenders mandatorily lose privileges for 180 to 365 days, depending on age.
The most lenient states (aside from those with no driving-related penalties for possession) impose either mandatory or discretionary suspensions/revocations of no more than 30 days. These include Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Texas.
Some states have specific family- and/or location-related exceptions to the prohibition of alcohol possession by minors. For instance, minors in Illinois can possess alcohol if they’re with a parent or guardian. In Alaska, they can possess alcohol in a private location and only in the presence of an adult parent, guardian, or spouse. In Georgia, possession is only allowed in the presence of a parent/guardian specifically while at the home of a parent or guardian.
Losing Driving Privileges for Purchasing Alcohol
After looking at the consequences of alcohol possession by minors, we examined each state’s potential penalties for the purchase of alcohol by minors. Currently, 19 states do not have laws regarding this offense. In contrast to possession laws, these states are concentrated in the northern half of the country, from coast to coast. In fact, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia are the only states in the South that do not possess such laws.
Again, Nevada has the potential for the harshest penalties, as license privileges are mandatorily removed for 90 to 730 days. Other states with strict penalties for underage purchase of alcohol issue a minimum mandatory 365-day loss of driver’s license. These include California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington. Iowa has a discretionary penalty of 365 days.
Other states have minimum penalties of just 30 days, including Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin., Some states fall in the middle, with revocation/suspension lengths of 60, 90, 120, or 180 days.
Losing Driving Privileges for Consuming Alcohol
After examining alcohol possession and purchase, we turned our attention to each state’s laws regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors. Of all three categories, this one had the most states with no laws: 27 states spread throughout the United States have no law rescinding minors’ driving privileges. Even some states that come down hard on minors for alcohol possession and purchase, including Nevada and California, don’t have laws regarding consumption.
Oregon, Utah, and Washington have mandatory penalties of 365 days’ loss of driving privileges, while Idaho and Louisiana have mandatory penalties of up to 365 days. Iowa and South Dakota have discretionary penalties of up to 365 days. On the other end of the spectrum, states including Texas, Nebraska, Montana, Kansas, and Delaware don’t have penalties longer than 30 days.
Although the MLDA is 21 nationwide, as with possession laws, some states have legal exceptions regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors. For instance, in Montana, minors can consume alcohol while with a parent or guardian. Underage people in Oregon can drink only with a parent or guardian present and while in a private residence. In New Jersey, minors can consume alcohol in a private location with no stipulations surrounding the presence of a parent or guardian.
Confiscation of False Identification Cards
For some who have not yet reached legal drinking age, it can be tempting to try to cheat the system. Using a false ID to purchase alcohol is prohibited in every state. However, minors have been known to use everything from a forged identity card purchased online to a digitally altered passport to skirt the rules. Although it’s a common misperception among young people that being refused service is the worst-case scenario, the consequences can be much worse.
In nearly a dozen states – California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin – retailers are allowed to confiscate false IDs from minors who attempt to purchase alcohol. In Arkansas, Colorado, South Dakota, and Utah, the minor can be detained. Offenders can face arrest and potential misdemeanor or even felony charges. As for the penalties, in the majority of states, it’s possible to lose driving privileges for using a false ID – and as the map below reveals, some retailers can even sue minors for the offense.
Some states also target the suppliers of false identifications. In approximately half of states, it’s a criminal offense to lend, sell, or transfer a fake ID. In 13 states, it’s a criminal offense to alter a valid ID or produce a false ID.
For a handful of states, retailers have an even more direct option for enforcing the law against underage offenders. In Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, and Arkansas, a retailer can lawfully detain any minors suspected of attempting to purchase alcohol with a falsified ID until authorities reach the scene.
Youth in these states may have especially good reason to think twice before trying to pass off a fake ID at the store – they can get busted by the average citizen, long before the cops arrive. All of these states consider it a criminal offense for minors to use a fake ID to purchase alcohol as well. The state of Utah also encourages retailers to use scanners to read digital information from ID cards and licenses, which increases the chance that clerks will detect false IDs.
Getting Sued for False Identification
When it comes to false IDs, numerous states have laws specifically designed to support retailers. Forty-two states require that driver’s licenses for people under 21 are easily distinguishable. Eleven states provide incentives to retailers that rely on scanners to read digitally encoded information on ID cards. As mentioned above, in four states, a minor can be detained for trying to use a false ID.
Five states have one of the most stringent policies: In Alaska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin, retailers can sue minors who use fake IDs. In Wisconsin, for instance, the “Brown Jug bill” went into effect in 2013. Under this stipulation, minors who buy or drink alcohol must pay the business owner $1,000 in addition to other fines. This is a notable step for Wisconsin, a state that is home to the third-most bars per capita and whose residents drink more than the average American.
Laws Against Underage Purchase
Across the country, laws regarding the underage purchase of alcohol contain some nuances. Technically, Delaware, Indiana, New York, and Vermont are the only states that have no laws explicitly banning minors from purchasing alcohol. However, these states still have rules stipulating that minors cannot use false IDs and/or rely on false statements to procure alcohol.
In 23 states, minors can purchase alcohol for law enforcement purposes. This refers to an alcoholic compliance check, during which people under 21 are directed to retail outlets to attempt an alcohol purchase. However, in some states, this practice is illegal despite law enforcement supervision.
Last year in New York, underage decoys were able to procure alcohol at 58 percent of the retail outlets attempted during an undercover investigation. The state has made various efforts to prompt retailers to adhere to the law, including sending a letter reminding stores to check ID and train employees to avoid selling alcohol to youth as well as translating the Liquor Authority handbook into commonly requested languages. Stores that allow minors to purchase alcohol can face stiff penalties in New York: $2,500 the first time and up to $10,000 for subsequent violations.
Drinking Rates Among Minors
Among people aged 12 to 20 in the United States, 8.7 million are current users of alcohol, 5.3 million are binge drinkers, and 1.3 million are heavy alcohol users. Breaking down youth drinking rates by state reveals areas of concern: Led by Rhode Island, New England fares the worst. North Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, and Pennsylvania also have particularly high rates of underage drinking.
While it can be difficult to determine precise reasons for regional differences, many factors may play a role in underage drinking, such as cultural norms, the prevalence of bars, the prevalence of colleges, and even the potential penalties involved. As our analysis demonstrates, several of the areas with especially lax laws – particularly the Northeast – also struggle with a high rate of teen drinking.
The Northeast is home to a cluster of states with no laws regarding the loss of driver privileges; additionally, only two states in the region allow retailers to seize false IDs. Three of the four states with no laws explicitly prohibiting minors from buying alcohol are located in the Northeast. In New England, numerous underage drinking parties have landed both youths and their parents in hot water. In one notable incident, police in Massachusetts broke up a party in a hotel where 29 people were under age 21.
Utah has the lowest rate of youth alcohol consumption in the country. However, on a regional level, the South lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to alcohol consumption by underage people. It’s possible religion plays a major role. In Utah, 60 percent of the population belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and according to the Mormon Word of Wisdom, followers should not drink alcohol. Utah also has some of the harshest punishments for minors who possess, consume, or purchase alcohol, including yearlong loss of driving privileges.
Ensure a Brighter Future
From an early age, children and teens are bombarded with advertisements about the glamor of drinking. And a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that these advertisements have a demonstrable impact: Such ads can prompt young people to take their first drink as well as encourage minors who already drink to consume more alcohol.
Unfortunately, people who begin drinking below the age of 21 are at a higher risk for a host of negative consequences, including injuries, suicide and violence, changes in brain development, and alcohol dependence later in life. One recent study even revealed that compared with a more permissive minimum drinking age, an MLDA of 21 helps safeguard people from the risk of dying due to alcohol-related chronic disease for their entire lives.
If you or someone you care about struggles with alcohol use, help is available. Alcohol addiction is a disease – and it can be treated. At ProjectKnow.com, we’re happy to connect you with local treatment resources as well as provide support and information. Don’t let addiction stand in the way of your dreams. Contact ProjectKnow.com today at our toll-free number: 1-888-991-7735.
APIS only includes provisions related to first offenses. States that impose a license sanction for repeat offenses only are not coded for this policy.