Underage Drinking: A Minor Transgression?

  • In the State of Indiana, it’s illegal for a person under 21 years of age to possess, transport, or consume alcohol.
  • Underage consumption is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and up to 60 days in jail.
  • No one wants to spend the rest of their life explaining a conviction, so if you’re facing criminal charges, make sure you hire an experienced defense attorney.

My name is Attorney Luke Wingo, and I’m an associate with the Marc Lopez Law Firm. I completed my undergrad at a small liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and I went on to earn my Juris Doctor from the University of Tennessee College of Law. I’m working on a number of blogs that target the concerns of younger adults, but that doesn’t mean older folks can’t enjoy them. These posts are intended to be informative but not overly dense, and, of course, none of this is meant to take the place of formal legal advice.

The subject of my second blog in this series is illegal possession of alcohol. Personally speaking, I remember how frustrating it was to be an underclassman in college—unwelcome at bars, uncomfortable on the dance floor, and unable to tailgate the way God intended. The 18-to-20 age range is an odd one, where society deems you experienced enough to make decisions about joining the military, but still too young to responsibly enjoy a beer. The legal drinking age has never made intuitive sense to me, and I’ve often wondered about the ethics of underage consumption: Is there morality at play here, or is this best understood in terms of a strictly practical, cost/benefit analysis?

I’m not qualified to be anyone’s life coach, so I can’t tell you what to do. What I can tell you is that underage drinking can lead to criminal charges, and—depending on your situation—it might lead to academic sanctions, as well. You may feel invincible when you’re young, but that doesn’t mean you actually are.

Why 21?

All 50 states have agreed to set the legal drinking age at 21, but how did we arrive at this uniform number? Way back in the Reagan years, Congress—prompted by the recently-organized Mothers Against Drunk Driving—passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, one of the stated goals of which was “to encourage a uniform minimum drinking age of 21.” This act didn’t require states to set the legal age at 21, as that would explicitly violate the Tenth Amendment. It did, however, provide a clear-cut inducement: Any state that didn’t conform to the new standard would sacrifice 10% of its annual federal highway apportionment.

(Aside: If this strikes you as a coercive arrangement, you have a point. Merriam-Webster, after all, defines the word coerce as “to compel to an act or choice.” In South Dakota v. Dole, however, the Supreme Court of the United States formally endorsed this approach, holding that the practice of attaching strings to federal funds was not an improper exercise of Congress’ spending power. Moreover, the Court declared that “the argument as to coercion is shown to be more rhetoric than fact.” In other words, it’s totally legit for Congress to do this. The impropriety is all in your head.)

In addition to federally-contrived incentives, the other main reason that the drinking age has remained at 21 is pretty straightforward: According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving fatalities among those under 21 have declined 80% from 1982 to 2016. Regardless of how you might feel about the social implications of our minimum drinking age, this is an impressive statistical correlation.

What’s the Rule in Indiana?

Even if you don’t believe that underage consumption is objectively wrong, there are good reasons not to engage in it. Indiana makes it a Class C misdemeanor for anyone under 21 years of age to knowingly: 1) possess alcohol; 2) consume alcohol; or 3) transport alcohol on a public highway. Transportation isn’t a crime if you have a parent or guardian with you, but there are no legal exceptions for possession or consumption. Violation of this law—like any other C misdemeanor—can result in a maximum fine of $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

It can always get worse. If you’re caught transporting alcohol while operating a vehicle, the State can suspend your license for up to one year—even if you’re completely sober. If you’re under 18, your driving privileges will be suspended for at least 60 days. If you’re not sober, you’ll be looking at an additional DUI / OVWI charge. In Indiana, if you’re under 21 and operating a vehicle with a BAC of 0.02-0.08, you can be charged with a Class C infraction, which carries maximum penalties of a $500 fine and a one-year license suspension.

Location is another factor that can increase the severity of your punishment. For example, if you’re caught with alcohol in your dorm room or anywhere else on campus, you’ll almost certainly be facing administrative sanctions from your university. For better or for worse, this consideration is becoming less relevant with time, as more schools are moving to implement sweeping policies, like the one IUPUI has in place: “[T]he university may discipline a student for acts of personal misconduct or criminal acts that are not committed on university property.”

The Moment of Confrontation—What Should You Do?

Let’s say you’ve thrown caution to the wind. You’re not yet 21, you’re in possession of alcohol, and the police arrive. What’s the smart play? Under no circumstances should you attempt to flee or become physically combative with the officer, as that will result in additional criminal charges. Resisting law enforcement is at minimum a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to one year in jail, and it only compounds your problems.

To be perfectly honest, police officers have a difficult and dangerous job. Their interactions with civilians often involve people who aren’t on their best behavior. If you’re confronted by law enforcement, try not to give them any reason to view you as a threat. Be polite, follow instructions, and—most importantly—embrace your right to remain silent. The Supreme Court held in Grunewald v. United States that the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination isn’t just for guilty people—it also “serves to protect the innocent who might otherwise be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances.” If you don’t have an attorney present, do yourself a favor and plead the Fifth. This is even more crucial if you haven’t been charged yet.

What Can a Lawyer Do for You?

There’s a popular conception—especially on university campuses—that underage drinking isn’t a big deal. Ordinary American teens are able to do it regularly without obvious consequences. The reality, however, is that every time you imbibe, you’re rolling the dice. No one expects to get caught breaking the rules, but it happens to people every day, and the potential fallout is very real. Even if you aren’t convicted of anything, your arrest creates a public record that you were charged with a crime. If you attend a school like IUPUI, they’ll likely suspend you regardless of the disposition of the criminal case. If you are found guilty, you may end up answering for it the rest of your adult life. No matter what sort of application we’re talking about—employment, military, academic—a criminal conviction isn’t something you want to have to include.

When your entire future is at stake, it’s important to hire a knowledgeable and savvy attorney to guide you through the judicial process. With the Marc Lopez Law Firm, you’ll get an entire team of experienced defense lawyers fighting on your behalf. If you or a loved one has been charged with underage consumption or possession of alcohol, call the Marc Lopez Law Firm at 317-632-3642. Initial consultations are free of charge.