Criminal Law

Proms, Parties and Underage Drinking

By Margaret Jasper, Attorney

Prom season is over; graduation parties are cause for celebration, but sometimes at a high cost to teenage lives.

Tragically, underage drinking has caused many of these teenagers to lose their lives much too early. Alcohol use by children under the age of 18 is associated with the three most common causes of teenage deaths: accidental deaths, homicides and suicides.

The 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days:

  • 45% drank some amount of alcohol
  • 26% binge drank
  • 11% drove after drinking alcohol
  • 29% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol

Underage Drinking and Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), during the 2005 prom and graduation season (the last for which statistics are available), 676 students died in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Many others have been seriously injured. The months of April, May and June have proven to be the most dangerous for teenage drivers and their passengers.

Ironically, teenagers are at a much greater risk of death in an alcohol-related accident than the overall population even though they can't legally buy alcohol. According to the NHTSA:

  • Thousands of teens are killed or injured in traffic accidents each year as a result of underage drinking
  • During 2006, 7,643 15 to 20-year-old drivers and motorcyclists were involved in fatal traffic crashes. 18 percent of those had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or higher

Law enforcement agencies are trying to reduce underage drinking by strictly enforcing the underage drinking laws as they apply to:

  • Underage drinkers
  • Adult hosts
  • Establishments that serve or sell liquor
  • Underage Drinkers

    Underage drinkers face serious consequences if they are caught. They'll likely be arrested and fined, lose their driver's licenses, and risk losing college acceptance and scholarship awards.

    Teens trying to buy alcohol with a fake or altered ID may also be charged with forgery and criminal impersonation. Also, anyone underage supplying or assisting another underage person to possess or consume alcohol can be fined or imprisoned.

    Social Host Liability

    Adults who provide alcohol to teenagers risk grave consequences if they're caught. This also means parents of underage drinkers. Being found guilty of supplying or assisting an underage person could end up in jail time and hefty fines.

    Many states have enacted social host liability laws targeting party hosts who serve alcohol to teenagers in their home - during a party or otherwise. Both civil and criminal charges can be brought on the host for any injury or damage caused to or by the intoxicated person.

    For example, you may be found liable by providing alcohol to an underage drinker who suffers alcohol poisoning or gets behind the wheel of a car and injures a driver or passenger in a car accident.

    Establishments Must Check Proof of Age

    It's a crime for any store or bar holding a liquor license to serve or sell alcohol to a person under the age of 21. Any violation risks incurring a large fine and the loss or suspension of its liquor license.

    Instruct employees to check proof of age of all patrons before serving them alcohol. Acceptable proof includes:

    • A driver's license or non-driver identification card
    • A passport
    • A military identification card

    Generally, birth certificates and college ID cards aren't acceptable proofs of age because they're often fake. Even with a valid form of ID, it's important to make sure the document hasn't been tampered with and that the ID photo matches the person presenting it. Inspect for erasures or alterations, particularly the date of birth on the document. Additionally, bars and other establishments may be liable for injuries or damage caused by an intoxicated person.

    Individual states have different policies regarding licenses for people under 21. In New Jersey, people under the age of 21 have a profile picture rather than a straight-on photo.

    Prevent Underage Drinking

    Law enforcement requests the help of parents, schools and the community to protect teens from the dangers of drinking and drinking and driving especially. Blocking access to alcohol and promoting awareness and education programs are the best strategies in preventing the needless deaths and injuries that are caused by underage drinking.

    Questions for Your Attorney

    • What types of laws cover underage drinking - state laws, local ordinances? How strict is enforcement?
    • I travel and leave my older teen and college-age children at home alone. Should I be concerned with underage drinking at my home, even if I have told the kids not have parties? Do I have to lock up or remove alcohol from my home?
    • If an underage drinker is involved in an alcohol-related accident at my home or while riding in or driving my car, will my insurance policies protect me?
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