What Happens If You Get Caught Drinking Under 21?

Now that school is back in session for college students and high schoolers alike, campus parties are back in full swing too – and many of these student-led soirees include public underage drinking as a central feature. If you get caught drinking in public under the age of 21, it can have a serious impact on your present and future record. However, even if you’re just an innocent bystander at a Halloween party, you could be unfairly accused of underage drinking by prosecutors looking to make an example of you.

Also called a “minor in possession” or MIP charge, underage drinking can result in fines, community service, and other serious legal consequences. At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we understand how difficult and overwhelming it can be to face MIP charges on your own. That’s why our Los Angeles criminal defense team will do everything in our power to seek justice on your behalf, and provide you with top-quality legal representation throughout the process.

Understanding California’s Underage Drinking Laws

The CDC reports that underage drinkers between 12 and 20 consume 11% of all the alcohol in the United States. Aside from the clear social costs of underage drinking, this behavior can also result in life-altering car accidents, catastrophic injuries, and even emergency room visits in cases of binge drinking. This is why the state of California has instituted strict laws about minors in possession of alcohol.

Under these laws, any person under the age of 21 who is caught drinking or possessing alcohol in public can face a fine of $250 and up to 32 hours of community service – and this is just for a first-time offense. If you commit a second offense, it can result in a $500 fine along with 48 hours of community service, and you will also be subject to a one-year driver’s license suspension at the DMV.

Why Is an MIP Conviction So Serious?

You will not go to jail if you are caught possessing alcohol as a minor in California. However, a minor-in-possession charge can still have serious consequences. Because these charges are classified as misdemeanors, a conviction will become part of your permanent criminal record. Employers, volunteer organizations, and universities will not necessarily see the full details of your case: They will simply see that you had a misdemeanor, and they will be entitled to deny you employment or schooling as they see fit.

How Do I Defend an Underage Drinking Charge?

Even the most careful and considerate student can find themselves in trouble with the law if the police get a tip about a campus party, or discover that minors are drinking in public. While you may not face charges at a home party hosted by adults, it will depend on the circumstances and the prosecutor – and your adult hosts will certainly face consequences for their actions.

Here are some of the most common defenses to underage drinking charges:

  • The alcohol was discovered by illegal search and seizure. The police officer who comes to investigate a college party must provide evidence of a search warrant, or else show that they had probable cause to suspect underage drinking. If you believe you were the victim of an illegal search, this could be a possible defense to your MIP charge.
  • You did not actually possess the alcohol yourself. You don’t have any responsibility under the law if you can prove that you did not actually possess alcohol. However, sharing a beer bottle with a friend or putting your drink down somewhere else at the party will not prevent you from receiving an MIP charge: Under the law, you “constructively” own the drink. In those instances, you’ll need a skilled attorney to help you prepare a defense against the possession claim itself.
  • You were not in a public place. If you were at a home rather than a bar, park, or restaurant, you may not be eligible for MIP charges. But if you brought your alcohol into a privately-owned vehicle, you’ll be found in violation of California’s open container laws – and intoxication in public can also result in charges under California Penal Code 647(f), or the “drunk in public” law.

Are you facing an MIP charge after a party that involved underage drinking? Call (800) 462-7160 to seek counsel from our experienced criminal defense team.