If you are underage and police arrest you for having alcohol or, in less-common circumstances, another controlled substance, you might face a minor in possession (MIP) charge.
A minor in possession (MIP) is a criminal charge dealing primarily with underage drinking. The legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 in all states, but some states have limited exceptions. However, most states have laws prohibiting those under age from even possessing alcoholic beverages.
MIP charges occurred as a result of changes enacted by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) in 1984. The act raised the legal drinking age, at the federal level, to 21.
MIP charges are fairly common causes for arrest for teens and young adults. The intent of MIP laws, as stated in the NMDAA, is to reduce drugged and drunk driving. With legal drinking ages falling, along with the right to vote, to 18 years old in several states, studies indicating an increase in vehicular fatalities — particularly among young drivers — involving alcohol spurred the NMDAA into existence.
MIP laws are not uniform and vary greatly by jurisdiction, but convictions generally require two elements:
You don’t have to be driving under the influence or even legally drunk to face MIP charges. Simply holding an alcoholic drink, even an unopened one, can be enough for a MIP citation.
Possession of alcohol falls under three categories. Simple possession, or actual physical possession, includes holding an opened or unopened alcohol beverage in your hand.
Constructive possession includes scenarios like driving with a case of beer in the car. You might also fall under this category if you are an underage party-goer who is sitting on a cooler filled with alcoholic beverages.
Lastly is possession by consumption. In some jurisdictions, possession by consumption is also known as a minor in consumption (MIC) rather than a minor in possession. Possession by consumption occurs when law enforcement officers encounter an intoxicated underage person.
Recently, many states are enacting laws that prohibit the “internal possession” of alcohol by those under 21 years of age. Internal possession literally means that you have alcohol in your system, even if no one saw you do it.
These charges typically require law enforcement to provide evidence of alcohol in your body, but they do not require proof of possession or consumption. Internal possession laws are often used for breaking up underage drinking parties. Minors who are not drinking or holding an alcoholic beverage, but have been drinking, can be cited.
Penalties for a minor in possession conviction vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The most common punishments involve fines, revocation of a driver’s license (where applicable), community service, diversion to a rehab program or alcohol education program, substance abuse counseling, and possible incarceration.
Driver’s license suspensions are also a common penalty. Some states will suspend a driver’s license on a first offense, while other states might only suspend a license for multiple MIP offenses.
In California, for example, a MIP conviction could mean a fine of $250 and 24 to 32 hours of community service. In Wisconsin, you could face a civil citation and a fine of up to $500. In comparison to the average punishment for a MIP conviction, these penalties are considered relatively lenient.
However, if you’re guilty of a MIP in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming, you could face jail time, even though a MIP is a misdemeanor offense.
Punishment for those who provide alcohol — individuals or businesses — to minors is generally more severe. Administrative penalties, like the loss of a liquor license, can accompany criminal penalties for those who violate the law, knowingly or otherwise.
In some states, there are exceptions to each state’s minor in possession law, and they vary by jurisdiction. Some examples of when minors can legally possess alcohol include:
If a minor is charged with possession of alcohol, a lawyer may try to establish that one of these exceptions applied, or they may choose to go for other defenses, such as:
Certain states, such as Colorado, New York, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, allow private consumption of alcohol by underage individuals in the presence of supervising and consenting family members.
Keep in mind that even if you are under the age of 21, you do have legal rights. You don’t have to answer questions that might be incriminating, and you have the right to seek legal counsel. A lawyer will go over the details of your MIP case to determine if:
While MIP charges or citations can often result in a minor fine, a diversionary program, or community service. Getting this result — or having the charges dismissed entirely — relies heavily on the expertise and guidance of an attorney.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified minor in possession lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local minor in possession attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.