When young people get to high school or college, attending to academic and other school-related obligations is of course paramount, but it is reality that young people will also want to enjoy themselves. For most, it's their first opportunity to make independent decisions and experience a taste of freedom, and they're ready to make the most of it.
Often, they're presented with opportunities to drink alcohol underage, and many under-21s don't think there's anything wrong with consuming a few alcoholic beverages at a party or with friends. The problem is that underage drinking is still a criminal offense, and for many youngsters, an underage drinking charge is their first brush with the law.
Not only is this a frightening experience for the whole family, but it could have long-term repercussions for your child's future. How will their education be affected by an underage drinking offense? Will they still have the same employment opportunities, or do they risk losing out on the future they've worked hard for?
These concerns are completely understandable, which is why it's vital that you build the strongest possible defense at the earliest opportunity. While you should contact an attorney immediately in light of underage drinking charges, here is some information to help you understand the legal issues at hand more generally.
What Is Underage Drinking?
In New Jersey, it's illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy, possess, or drink alcohol in a motor vehicle, or any public place such as a school, place of assembly, or business (New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, Section 2C:33-15). There are a few limited exceptions when it's legal for a minor to drink in a private place, but the same exceptions do not apply to public places.
Many people assume that it's okay for a minor to drive a vehicle with alcohol inside it, whether it's in a grocery bag or packed in the trunk. However, this is not the case. It's illegal for a minor to carry any alcohol inside their vehicle, even if it's unopened. It's also illegal for kids to drink alcohol in a vehicle under any circumstances, even if the car is turned off at the time.
Underage drinking is a criminal offense, meaning it's punishable by law. Minors under 18 will face juvenile charges, and young persons under 21 but over 18 will be charged as an adult.
If your child is convicted of underage drinking at any age, the charge goes on their criminal record. A criminal record stays with your child for the rest of their life.
What Is the Penalty for Underage Drinking in NJ?
The penalty varies depending on the severity of the offense and the age of the child.
If your child is over 18 but under 21, they could be fined anywhere between $500 and $1000 for an underage drinking offense. For more serious offenses, a judge may impose a jail term of up to six months, or they may be ordered to attend alcohol awareness or treatment programs. The idea behind these programs is to help prevent the child from drinking again by educating them on the harms involved.
If a child aged between 18 and 20 is convicted of drinking in a motor vehicle, they will lose their license for six months. What many people don't know is that it doesn't matter if it's your child's car, or if they were the one driving. If they're consuming alcohol in a motor vehicle, their own license will be suspended. This could affect your child's ability to attend work or a place of education.
If your child is under 18, they'll face juvenile delinquency proceedings as they can't be charged as an adult. They may be placed in an alcohol treatment center, depending on the circumstances of the case and how likely it is that they'll re-offend.
If a minor under 18 years of age is caught drinking in a motor vehicle, they will lose their driver's license for a six-month period. If they don't have a license yet, they will be prevented from applying for a license in New Jersey for this six month period. Again, this could jeopardize your child's ability to apply for a job or an educational opportunity.
What Other Charges Can Relate to Underage Drinking?
Often, when it comes to underage drinking, there's more than one crime committed, which means your child could face a whole range of additional criminal charges.
As an example, say they use a fake ID to purchase alcohol. They could be charged with Displaying a False Document. Or, they could also be charged with shoplifting if they stole the alcohol from a store.
One of the most severe charges your child could face is Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). A DWI/DUI is a serious traffic offense and it can result in jail time. You must contact an attorney immediately if your child is facing a DUI/DWI charge.
Since minors are only learning how to make adult decisions, they often don't appreciate the consequences of their actions until it's too late. Remind your children how serious underage drinking can be, and what can happen as a result of their actions.
What Are the Consequences of Underage Drinking?
The consequences of underage drinking can be severe, depending on the extent of the charges and the life stage of the person involved.
First and foremost, your child will have a criminal record if they're convicted of an underage drinking offense of any kind. This criminal conviction has far-reaching implications across many areas of your child's life, including:
- Education: Colleges might reject applications from applicants with criminal records, which could derail your child's future prospects. Even if your child's application is accepted, they may not receive any financial aid, which could make college unviable financially. Granted, an underage drinking conviction may not at first glance seem to prevent a student from getting accepted, but when schools are deciding among thousands of applicants and can only accept so many applicants, such a black mark can make the difference between an application being accepted or denied.
- Work: A criminal conviction can deter an employer from offering your child a job in the future, especially in white-collar professions. Some professions have strict licensing requirements, and criminal convictions will automatically disqualify your child from applying. Again, an underage drinking conviction certainly does not mean a young person is Public Enemy Number 1, but it may be regarded as a sign of irresponsibility and can lessen a candidate's competitiveness.
- Social: The stigma of a criminal conviction can affect your child within the local community. You may also notice that your own friends put some distance between you and their families.
- Military service: Often, the US Armed Forces will reject applicants if they have a criminal conviction. Even if they accept your child's application, the process may be delayed.
It's crucial that your child understands how criminal charges can affect their future prospects and ambitions, should they choose to drink alcohol underage.
Is It Illegal to Provide My Child With Alcohol?
With a few exceptions, it's illegal for an adult to provide a minor with alcohol in the state of New Jersey.
The exceptions are found in Section 2C 33:17 of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, but we can summarize them as follows:
- Religious ceremonies: If alcohol is an integral part of a religious ceremony, right, or observance, then a minor may legally consume alcohol for this purpose only.
- Employment: If the minor works for a licensed employer, they can legally hold or possess (but not consume) alcohol. Your child may need a permit issued by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to handle alcohol in this way.
- Education: Under-21s who are studying a culinary or hotel management program may hold or possess alcohol, but not drink it.
- Private property: A minor can drink alcohol in the presence of an immediate adult family member at the family home, with the adult's consent.
In NJ, there are a few municipalities where it's illegal for minors to drink even on private property, such as backyards. These are generally civil rather than criminal offenses, but they should still be taken seriously and you should ensure your child complies with the laws in place.
If you give alcohol to a minor illegally, you can be charged as a disorderly person and face your own criminal consequences. So if you're in any doubt as to whether it's legal to give a minor alcohol in a certain situation, simply don't offer them alcohol.
How Do You Defend an Underage Drinking Charge?
There are a few ways your attorney can defend an underage drinking charge.
First, as stated, it's legal for minors to drink alcohol if it was part of a religious ceremony, or if they were consuming the alcohol on private property with a supervising adult present.
It's also possible to avoid prosecution for underage drinking if there's a medical emergency.
If a minor drinks alcohol and needs medical attention, another minor can call 911 for help. Both the minor who makes the call and the injured minor are immune from prosecution for underage drinking in these circumstances if:
- The minor provides their full name to the emergency operator
- They're the first person to call 911
- They stay on the scene until help arrives, and they cooperate with emergency services personnel
The idea is to ensure that minors don't hesitate to call an ambulance in a medical emergency just because they're worried about possible criminal charges.
Depending on the facts of the case, there may be other ways we can dispute the prosecution's evidence and raise a successful defense. If your child faces an underage drinking charge, contact an attorney immediately for advice on what defenses may be open to them.
Can Someone Under 21 Drive With Alcohol in Their Vehicle?
If there's an adult present, a minor can drive with alcohol in the vehicle. They can also drive in possession of alcohol if they can show they're transporting alcohol for work or education purposes as outlined above.
Otherwise, a minor can't drive with any alcoholic beverages in their vehicle. If they're caught in possession of alcohol without a reasonable excuse, they could be charged with a criminal offense.
Where Will the Case Be Heard?
It depends on the age of the minor.
If the minor charged with underage drinking is under 18, the case is heard in Family Court. If found guilty, they'll probably need to pay a fine of at least $500. It's unlikely the child will go to jail, but depending on the severity of the offense, they could be sentenced to a juvenile detention center instead.
For minors over 18 but under 21, the case will move through NJ's criminal court system. The person could be sentenced to jail if the judge decides that a custodial sentence is appropriate.
Are the Penalties the Same for First Offenders?
A skilled attorney can sometimes negotiate a lesser penalty for first-time offenders, depending on the offense. For example, they may convince a judge to impose community service or probation, rather than a custodial sentence, or the child might receive nothing more than a written warning.
It might also be possible to enroll your child in a diversionary program if they're a first-time offender. This option allows them to avoid conviction altogether if they complete the program and pay the required fine once the program is over. Counseling may also be required as a condition.
If the child doesn't complete the program, the case progresses through the courts. Their failure to complete a diversionary program will result in adverse consequences.
Can Underage Drinking Charges Be Expunged?
A criminal record could prevent your child from accessing the career and employment opportunities they desire. However, everyone deserves a second chance, and the good news is that underage drinking charges can be expunged from someone's criminal record.
When the charges are expunged, the individual is free to move on with their life and reach their full potential. Potential employers can't access these records (the exception being if your child decides to apply for a job in law enforcement), and the charges won't show up when your child tries to do things like apply for a home loan.
All that said, the young person needs to meet certain criteria before charges are expunged. Namely, they must satisfy any probation or sentencing requirements, pay any required fines, and wait a minimum of four years before seeking expungement.
The expungement procedure normally takes around half a year to complete, and unfortunately, there's no scope for expediting the process. However, at the Lento Law Firm, we'll do what we can to ensure everything is completed as quickly as possible.
If I Didn't Know My Child Was Drinking, Am I Still Liable?
It depends on the circumstances of each case and whether you can prove you had no knowledge or suspicion of alcohol consumption.
If you don't know that minors are drinking in your home, you may not be liable. For example, if there's no alcohol in your house, and your child brings alcohol home and consumes it without your knowledge, you should not be responsible for alcohol-related harm stemming from this incident.
On the other hand, if you know there's alcohol in the house, and you leave a minor home alone with their young friends, you might suspect that they'll consume alcohol, in which case you could be liable for alcohol-related damages and injuries.
If you're a parent facing criminal charges on account of underage drinking, contact an NJ attorney right away for help with your defense.
How Do I Prevent Underage Drinking?
The best thing you can do is talk to your kids early about the dangers of underage drinking. If your child admits to drinking alcohol, or if you can tell they're drinking, discuss what's causing the behavior and arrange for them to see a counselor if you think it could help. The earlier you catch a possible drinking problem, the easier it may be to manage in the long term.
- Where possible, don't keep alcohol in the house.
- Don't leave under-21s home alone with alcohol on the property.
- If you do keep alcohol at home, ensure it's securely stored away.
- Be sure your child knows they can talk to you about drugs and alcohol.
- Ensure children understand the possible consequences associated with underage drinking, such as ill health and loss of education and future employment opportunities.
And finally, remind them that under no circumstances should they drink and drive. Not only do drunk drivers pose a serious risk to themselves and the public at large, but the criminal penalties can be life-changing.
How can Joseph D. Lento Help With Underage Drinking Charges?
Every child makes mistakes, and while it's crucial that they learn responsibility, it's also vital that we do everything possible to protect their best interests. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is committed to helping families just like yours deal with underage drinking charges in New Jersey. He has the experience, skill, and dedication to do what it takes to help you understand these charges and build the strongest possible defense.
If your child is facing underage drinking criminal charges or high school or college disciplinary action relating to the holding, drinking, or providing alcohol, give the Lento Law Firm a call right away on 888-535-3686, or leave us a message online.