College and high school students just want to have fun. As such, they often don’t think much about having a few drinks with their friends, despite being under 21. For the most part, this kind of underage drinking is an innocent act.
If police catch kids under 21 with alcohol, however, the fun can quickly come to a halt. Underage drinking can carry serious penalties, both for the kids who do it and for the adult(s) who supplied the drinks. This includes fines and the potential for jail time (or detention for minors).
Anyone who has been charged with underage drinking needs the help of a skilled attorney to fight the charges and reduce the risk of serious penalties.
What is Underage Drinking?
Under New Jersey State Law (2C:33-15) it is illegal for a person under 21 years of age to purchase, drink, or possess an alcoholic beverage in a public place, motor vehicle, or school. Individuals over age 18 but under age 21 will face charges as an adult, while those under 18 will be charged with a juvenile offense.
Those under 21 are not allowed to have alcoholic beverages in one’s vehicle under any circumstances. This is true even if the container is unopened and factory sealed. It is also a violation regardless of whether the vehicle is running (i.e. “being operated”) at the time or not.
The State of New Jersey has not criminalized underage drinking on private property. However, many municipalities in NJ have local laws prohibiting underage drinking on private property, such as in a backyard at a barbecue. In many cases, these are civil offenses, not crimes, although it would be unwise to take them lightly.
Penalties and Fines
There are real consequences for an underage drinking conviction in New Jersey. A conviction for underage drinking is a disorderly persons offense, and carries a fine of not less than $500. More stringent penalties are also a possibility including jail time of up to 6 months, and up to $1,000 in fines.
Drinking or even possession of alcohol in a vehicle, in addition to the usual penalties, can result in the defendant’s driving privilege being suspended or postponed for 6 months.
A conviction for underage drinking goes on one’s permanent criminal record, which can have long-lasting consequences beyond the fine or jail term. The conviction will show up in background checks when applying for jobs. It can also show up years later when applying for an apartment lease or mortgage.
In some cases, students can lose scholarships, get rejected from the college of their choice, or get kicked out of the college they are enrolled in.
How To Beat A Charge of Underage Drinking
There are several situations in which a person under the age of 21 can legally consume or possess alcohol. One is when the consumption takes place on private property in the presence of parents who permit the underage person to drink. A person under 21 can also drink alcohol if the consumption is part of a religious ceremony or rite.
New Jersey alcohol regulations allow a minor to possess (but not drink) alcohol if he/she is working for a hotel or restaurant and the handling of alcohol is part of the job responsibilities (e.g. a 17-year-old waitress can serve alcohol to legal-aged customers). It is also permissible if the underage person is preparing food while enrolled in a culinary arts or hotel management program.
A person can avoid prosecution for underage drinking in cases of a medical emergency. Under 2C:33-15f, if an underage person calls 911 to get medical help for another person related to the alcohol consumption, he/she will be immune to prosecution so long as
- he/she was the first to contact emergency services; and
- he/she provides his/her name to the 911 operator; and
- he/she remains on the scene with the person in need of medical assistance and is cooperative with police and other emergency personnel.
This same provision can also be extended to up to two other underage drinkers provided their names are given to the 911 operator and they, too, remain on the scene and cooperative.
These circumstances may not apply to every case. Regardless, it is best to consult with an attorney to determine the best defense for a charge of underage drinking. An attorney can also negotiate with prosecutors to potentially reduce the charge to a lesser offense that won’t appear on one’s criminal record.
Case Law Analysis
Offenses Related to Underage Drinking
Underage drinking is a crime that does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, since it is illegal to serve alcohol to minors, in order for them to obtain the drinks may require other violations.
If the provider was an adult knowingly giving alcohol to a minor, that person may be charged under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-17.
An underage person who uses a fake ID to purchase alcoholic beverages can be charged with Displaying a False Document (N.J.S.A. 2C:21-2.1c). If the alcohol was stolen from someone’s home, the youths involved can be charged with Theft by Unlawful Taking (N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3). If the alcohol was stolen from a store, then charges of Shoplifting (N.J.S.A. 2C:20) may apply.
Underage youths with alcohol in a vehicle can be charged with underage drinking even if the containers are not open. If one or more is open, however, then the driver can also be charged with violating NJ’s Open Container Law (N.J.S.A. 39:4-51b).
Young drivers might also be surprised to learn that drinking in one’s vehicle with the engine on, even if the vehicle is parked, is grounds for a conviction for DUI!
Consequences for a First Offense
If a charge of underage drinking is a person’s first offense, it may be possible to avoid jail and incur minimal consequences. However, it is important to have the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney.
The attorney can assess the circumstances of the charge to determine the best chance of convincing a judge to issue a lighter sentence. This may involve community service or probation as an alternative to jail, on top of the minimum fine.
Consequences for Juveniles
For those under 18 charged with underage drinking, the case will be heard in Family Court, rather than NJ’s criminal or municipal court system. A conviction will still mean a criminal record and all the related consequences.
Moreover, while a juvenile will not likely go to jail, he/she can be sentenced to a juvenile detention facility by a judge. Whether or not this happens will depend on the circumstances of the case and the quality of the arguments made by the attorney.
A skilled attorney offers the best chance of convincing a judge that a youth was not engaged in delinquent behavior, but rather experimenting innocently as so many kids do. He/she may be able to negotiate with prosecutors or the judge to issue an alternative sentence, such as community service or mandatory alcohol counseling, depending on the situation.
Enrolling in NJ Diversionary Programs
A diversionary program, such as a Conditional Discharge, can help a person avoid both jail and a conviction for underage drinking. Conditional Discharge and other programs like it have limited enrollment space. Even well-qualified applicants can be denied the opportunity to participate in a diversionary program. An attorney can advise on whether a diversionary program is worth trying.
Those who are accepted will be required to complete a program designed for them. For alcohol-related offenses, substance abuse counseling is often required, although other things such as community service, job training, and probation may be part of the program.
If the program is completed successfully, the charges are dropped. Those who fail to complete the program can have their case moved to trial.
Expunge Underage Drinking Convictions
Having a criminal record can be a serious burden. Thankfully, convictions for underage drinking can be expunged from a criminal record. However, the person must meet a number of important requirements.
The first requirement is to satisfy any sentencing, meaning he/she must complete any jail sentence or probation, as well as repay any fines. Once that is done, he/she must then wait 4 years (6 if the criminal record has an indictable offense on it).
After that, the person must complete the expungement petition, which is lengthy and has many components. Our page on expungements explains this in detail. Bottom line: it pays to hire an attorney to help get the paperwork right and ensure that the process is followed correctly.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Should I Contact?
A conviction for underage drinking goes on your permanent criminal record and will appear on a criminal background check performed by educational institutions and employers. It is advisable that you hire a competent attorney when faced with an underage drinking charge in New Jersey. At Rosenblum Law, our lawyers will vigorously defend you against the charges you face. Call us now for the opportunity to speak directly to an attorney free of charge: 888-815-3649.