Criminal Law

Minor in Possession (MIP)

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 conviction can become part of your criminal record. This can sometimes affect job opportunities and school applications down the road.

This article offers background on MIP charges and their potential consequences. If you or a loved one have been charged, speaking with a local attorney is often the best first step to mitigating legal jeopardy.

What Are MIP Laws?

A minor in possession (MIP) offense 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 underage from even possessing alcoholic beverages.

MIP charges have occurred due to 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 relatively common causes of 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.

Proving an MIP Charge

MIP laws are not uniform and vary significantly by jurisdiction, but convictions generally require two elements:

  • You are under the legal drinking age at the time of the citation
  • You drank, possessed, or attempted to buy alcohol

You don’t have to drive under the influence or be legally drunk to face MIP charges. Simply holding an alcoholic drink, even an unopened one, can be enough for a MIP citation.

What Is Considered Possession of Alcohol?

Possession of alcohol falls under three categories. Simple possession, or actual physical possession, includes holding an opened or unopened alcoholic 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 partygoer 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.

Internal Possession Laws

Recently, many states are enacting laws that prohibit the “internal possession” of alcohol by those under 21 years of age. Internal possession means 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.

What Are the Consequences of a Minor in Possession?

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.

Punishment for Underage Drinking by State

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.

Possible Defenses to MIP Laws

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:

  • When a parent, guardian, or spouse who is over 21 is present
  • When the minor is at a private residence
  • As part of a religious service
  • As part of medical treatment
  • Employment with a business that sells alcohol
  • As part of educational courses

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:

  • A lack of alcohol in the container
  • No actual or constructive possession, meaning that while alcohol was present, the minor did not possess it or know of it
  • Involuntary intoxication, meaning that a person was drugged
  • Forced intoxication, meaning the minor was threatened into drinking alcohol

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.

What To Do if You Are Facing an MIP Charge

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:

  • You violated the law
  • Law enforcement followed proper procedures
  • You have an affirmative defense

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.

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