Alcohol Crimes

Alcohol plays a role in the commission of countless crimes, not only alcohol-related offenses. But four offenses in particular—driving under the influence (DUI), minor in possession of alcohol, open container, and public intoxication—are most often referred to as “alcohol-related crimes."

DUI is the most serious of the four and carries the most severe penalties. Minor in possession laws seek to educate young people about the potential dangers of drinking. They also provide treatment programs as needed. Open container laws, which vary by state and local ordinance, serve several purposes, including the prevention of drunk driving. Laws prohibiting public intoxication likewise focus on public safety. They seek to prevent offenders from disturbing or harming others in public.

DUI Charges and Mandatory Minimum Penalties

Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs can be known as DUI or DWI (driving while under the influence). In either case, it represents the most serious alcohol-related offense and is widely committed today. DUI laws took effect in the early part of the 20th century with the advent of motor vehicles. New Jersey passed the first such law in 1906. Other state laws soon followed.

Over time, the laws and penalties associated with drunk driving became stronger as knowledge of fatalities increased. Efforts by advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the 1970s and 1980s brought more attention to the crisis of alcohol-related accidents and the criminal record of repeat offenders.

Originally, DUI offenses required states to demonstrate proof of a driver's intoxication. This came from police and witness observations, which were not always objective. In 1941, New York modified its DUI law to state that a person with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .15 percent or higher within two hours of arrest could be presumed intoxicated. States and law enforcement improved their ability to test for BAC in blood, breath, or urine. Police now use a breathalyzer in almost all DUI arrests.

Scientists also studied the effects of alcohol consumption on impaired drivers. Today, every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico prohibit driving with a BAC of .08 or greater. (Utah sets the limit at .05 BAC.) When a driver has a BAC of .08 or higher, they have impairments in muscle coordination, judgment, and memory that increases the danger on the roadway.

DUI statutes now prohibit operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Although it may be harder to detect, drug abuse presents another serious problem on the roadways. Heightened awareness and tougher laws have improved detection and treatment in all areas. Still, intoxicated drivers remain a serious problem. During 2012-2021, they caused an average of 10,850 deaths annually.

In most jurisdictions, a first offense of DUI/BAC will result in a misdemeanor charge. If convicted, sentencing may include mandatory jail time, fines, and a license suspension. In many states, a court may provide an alternative to a jail sentence that includes residential alcohol education and treatment programs. These mandatory, minimum penalties increase with each subsequent offense. States vary on how many prior convictions in a given time period will permit enhancement to a felony charge. Under certain circumstances, such as a motor vehicle accident with injuries or death, a DUI offense may also rise to a felony crime.

Minor in Possession (MIP) Violations and Losing Your Driver's License

Since the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C.A. § 158), all states have raised their legal drinking age to 21. Driving is considered a privilege that can be taken away if you are in violation of the law. Possession of alcohol or consumption of alcohol by a minor is unlawful in all states. It is likewise illegal for a minor to have any amount of alcohol in their system. This includes any measurable concentration of alcohol in blood, breath, or urine (BAC). An exception may be provided when the alcohol is provided by a parent, spouse, or legal guardian supervising the underage minor at the time.

Sometimes referred to as "consumption by a minor," "minor in possession" charges (MIP) will normally be a misdemeanor offense. Underage drinking that leads to a MIP conviction can have serious consequences for a young driver. It may result in any of the following:

  • Loss of driver's license
  • Suspension of driving privileges
  • Substantial fines and costs
  • Jail time
  • Community service
  • Education programs
  • Treatment programs
  • Probation

When it comes to minors, states often prioritize intervention efforts to prevent alcohol abuse short of imposing a jail sentence. For example, in California, an attempt to possess or purchase alcohol by a minor includes a fine of up to $100 and/or 24-32 hours of community service. It also includes a one-year suspension of the driver's license.

Open Container Laws

Open container laws refer to laws regulating open containers of alcoholic beverages in public or vehicles. These statutes are left up to states and local municipalities to legislate. However, penalties are fairly standard. For an open container in public, if there are no extenuating circumstances or prior incidents, the penalty may be a small fine. However, if the police find an open container in your vehicle during a traffic stop, you may face enhanced misdemeanor charges for the open container violation.

Studies tying the connection between drinking in vehicles with alcohol-related offenses led to state efforts to ban open containers in motor vehicles. In 1998, the federal Transportation Equity Act provided a financial incentive for states to adopt open container laws that banned open containers from the entire passenger component of most motor vehicles. If the states complied, they had full use of their federal transportation funds. If they did not, then a portion of their transportation funds were reserved and only available for use in alcohol-impaired driving programs.

Open container laws may also refer to state laws prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public places. These laws seek to prevent the incidence of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Enforcement of these laws can place cities in a balancing act of sorts. Cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas have traditionally permitted open containers in public places as part of their reputation as entertainment destinations. More recently, other cities have created "entertainment zones" which permit open containers during certain hours or in designated public areas.

Public Intoxication Defenses

Most state public intoxication laws require you to be willfully under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs to be in violation of the law. Depending on the elements of the offense, there may be several defenses to these charges available that could result in a dismissal or reduction of your charge. These defenses include that:

  • You were not intoxicated
  • You were not in a public place
  • You were able to safely care for yourself
  • You did not interfere with or obstruct any public way

Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor

Any adult who aids or encourages a child to behave in an unruly manner or participate in delinquent activities may be guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Furnishing alcohol to a minor—that is, giving or purchasing alcohol for a person under 21 years of age—is a misdemeanor in just about every state. Different states disagree over whether the behavior must actually lead to an act of delinquency and whether mens rea (a “guilty mind") is required for a guilty verdict.

Sometimes a state's minor in possession law will separately address the prohibition on an adult furnishing alcohol to a minor. These laws continue to bring renewed scrutiny due to the prevalence of parents who provide alcohol for their underage children's parties and tragic hazing incidents on college campuses.

Why You Need a Criminal Defense Attorney

You may want to consider hiring a criminal defense attorney if you don't understand your rights or the consequences you might face from an alcohol-related offense. You also might want legal advice if you are (or plan to be) in a profession that requires bonding. Legal advice might also help if you are in a profession where any criminal conviction might prevent you from getting or keeping a professional license. If you don't know the requirements, then you may benefit from expert advice before handling the case yourself. Consider talking to a criminal defense attorney to know your rights.

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