As a criminal defense attorney practicing law in a college town (Gainesville, Florida) I've seen more than my fair share of young adults, ages 18 - 20, charged with the criminal offense of underage possession of alcohol. Underage possession of alcohol is a second degree misdemeanor in Florida and carries the potential punishment of imprisonment up to sixty days in jail for the first offense. See Florida Statute 562.111(1) I can’t help but feel sorry for these young adults and their parents as the realization sinks in that this “criminal” activity will be of public record, potentially for life. Yes, we live in a country where one is old enough to get one’s legs blown off in Afghanistan serving in the armed forces at eighteen years of age, but when one returns to the “land of the free” and possesses a can of beer one can be arrested, taken to jail and charged with a crime.
National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their minimum “purchase” and “public possession” of alcohol age to twenty-one. States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act. The national law specifically prohibited the purchase and public possession of alcoholic beverages. The federal law did not prohibit all persons ages eighteen to twenty-one from drinking. The term "public possession" in the federal law was strictly defined and did not apply to possession for the following:
- An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older;
- Medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution;
- In private clubs or establishments;
- In the course of lawful employment by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer."
The State of Florida, however, in response to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act implemented a prohibition that does not contain an exception for “private clubs or establishments”.
Florida’s Penalties For Underage Drinking, Include Mandatory Driver License Suspension
Not only does Florida law authorize imprisonment for this “criminal” offense, if one is found guilty of Underage Possession of Alcohol, the court is required to revoke one’s driver's license for a minimum of six months. The court also has the authority to increase this suspension to 12 months. See Florida Statute 562.111(3) Second and subsequent offenses result in the crime of under age possession of alcohol being classified as a first degree misdemeanor which can result in a maximum penalty of twelve months in jail. If found guilty of under age possession of alcohol with a prior conviction, the court is required to revoke one’s driver's license for two years. Fortunately, in some Florida jurisdictions prosecutors may allow first time offenders to enter into a diversion program or a deferred prosecution agreement which can result in a dismissal of the under age drinking case. See Understanding the Deferred Prosecution Alternative in Florida Criminal Misdemeanor Cases.
The Crime Involves Mere Possession of Alcohol, Not Just Drinking or Consumption
Several times I've represented individuals who were in possession of unopened alcoholic beverages. In one case a nineteen year old was moving beer he had not purchased from a vehicle to a fraternity house. In another case a twenty year old woman was passing an unopened beer from a cooler to her adult friend. In each case the client was surprised to learn that the crime of underage possession of alcohol does not require drinking or ingestion of the alcohol. Mere possession is enough under the law.
No Parental Authorization Exception To Underage Possession of Alcohol
Florida law makes no provision for the parents of children or young adults to possess or consume alcohol. Florida law does permit young adults ages 18 - 20 to posses alcohol beverages when employed in the sale, preparation or service of alcoholic beverages. Possession is lawful if it occurs within the scope of the young adult’s employment. Yes, a young adult’s employer can authorize alcohol possession by an underage person, but a parent can’t under Florida law.