An adult who helps, encourages, or contributes to a minor child becoming a juvenile delinquent may face criminal charges of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor" or "contributing to delinquency." A minor child is anyone under the age of majority, which is 18 years of age in most states.
Colorado was the first state to establish the crime in 1903. Now, every state has such laws, though most have carved out exceptions. A common issue surrounds adults providing alcohol to minors. A minor cannot purchase or possess alcohol. Minors who do are engaging in an act of juvenile delinquency. So, in most circumstances, an adult who provides alcohol to a minor commits the crime of contributing to delinquency.
In most states, the same general rules apply when assessing illegal acts between adults and minors. Adults commit crimes, and their cases proceed in the state's criminal justice system. Minors (juveniles) commit delinquent acts, and their cases proceed in juvenile or family court. Adult cases may end with a criminal conviction. A minor's case may end with an adjudication as a delinquent child (juvenile).
Definitions of delinquency and laws affecting juveniles may vary from state to state. This article focuses on the adult crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It gives special attention to the common act of providing alcohol to minors.
Contributing to Delinquency: Elements of the Crime
Every state makes it a crime for adults to aid a minor's act of delinquency. While the crime in each state may differ somewhat, it is generally similar in scope. For instance, most states will file contributing to delinquency charges if you buy or provide a case of beer for a teen. They also will file if you host a keg party attended by your teenage child and their friends. This will most often be a misdemeanor offense. Some states may elevate the crime to a felony in certain circumstances.
The elements of contributing to delinquency often include:
- An adult (or another minor, in some states) committed an act or failed to perform a duty; and
- The act or omission caused (or had the tendency to cause), helped, encouraged, or contributed to a minor child becoming or remaining:
- A dependent of the juvenile court
- A delinquent
- A habitual truant
Many state laws use language such as "tending to cause" delinquency. This means the minor does not actually have to commit an act of delinquency for the adult to be charged with the crime. For example, the state can charge you even if your 14-year-old neighbor did not receive the case of beer you bought for them. Of course, the state's case is stronger if your juvenile neighbor actually took possession.
State laws may also vary on the mental state required to commit the crime of contributing to delinquency. Sometimes, the statute does not make this clear. For example, in Ohio, the statute does not provide the intent level. It does not prohibit "knowingly" or "recklessly" violating the law. Yet it does state that "no person shall" commit the crime. This led to confusion as to whether the law was one of strict liability (where no intent is required) or recklessness. In 2004, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that recklessness is the mental state necessary for a contributing to delinquency of a minor charge.
State law provides definitions for a delinquent or dependent child or a habitual truant. In a criminal case, the state must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to get a conviction. Therefore, law enforcement must assess the facts of each case carefully.
Most states define a delinquent act as an act committed by a minor that would be a crime if committed by an adult. It may also include any violation of a court's lawful order by a minor. For example, say the juvenile court has previously ordered the child to attend school or reside with a parent. An adult who helps the child break those orders may face a charge of contributing to delinquency.
States also make determinations about dependent children. When a state agency assesses a complaint of child abuse or neglect, it may attempt to reunify the family or find foster care for the child. But this depends on the circumstances. In either situation, the state may file an action in juvenile court. It may claim the child needs services due to the abuse or neglect. The court will determine whether the child qualifies as a dependent child. It will also determine what services the state must provide.
Most states provide misdemeanor penalties for adults convicted of contributing to delinquency. In Colorado, the penalty depends on what act the adult encourages or aids the minor to commit. If the act is a "felony victim rights crime," the contributing to delinquency charge is elevated to a class 4 felony. In Oklahoma, the first violation of contributing to delinquency is a misdemeanor offense. Any subsequent offense is a felony.
Contributing to Delinquency vs. Providing Alcohol To Underage Person
Whether an offender will be charged with both criminal offenses depends on state law and the policy in the prosecutor's office. In most cases, both offenses carry similar penalties.
Contributing to Delinquency: Exceptions
The National Minimum Age Drinking Act of 1984 is the major federal law on the consumption of alcohol by minors. The law ties states' receipt of federal highway funding to setting the state minimum drinking age to 21 years of age. The federal law also requires states to ban underage purchases or public possession of alcoholic beverages by minors.
Federal regulations provide certain exceptions to the consumption or contact of alcohol by minors in the definition of "public possession." The federal law defines the following circumstances as exceptions to the "public possession" of alcohol when:
- The minor is with their parent, spouse, or legal guardian (who is 21 or over)
- Used for established religious practices
- Used or handled for valid employment purposes for an employee under 21
- Used for valid medical reasons
- Used in private clubs or establishments
At least 46 states also provide exceptions or defenses to the crime of providing alcohol to a minor. These exceptions may be narrowly defined based on the state at issue. Sometimes, the only exception allowed permits the underage teenager or adult to work for a company and handle but not serve alcoholic beverages.
The following summary provides a basic outline of the types of common defenses or exceptions to a contributing to delinquency charge. As a disclaimer, note that state laws change frequently. Consider talking to a criminal defense attorney to verify the status of any of the exceptions below in your state:
- Private premises with parental consent: Depending on the state, this may require the parent or guardian to be present. Or it may require consumption at the parent or guardian's home. In some states, this may also be permitted at a restaurant. For example, you may serve your teenage child a glass of wine at dinner (in at least 34 states, including New York and Texas).
- Religious reasons: Various faiths provide wine in their rituals or celebrations. For example, your child may sip a small amount of wine at a religious service for ceremonial purposes (in at least 29 states, including Colorado and Illinois).
- Medical purposes: Tinctures and other medications may contain alcohol. For example, your doctor may prescribe a medication that contains alcohol for your child (in at least 16 states, including Arizona and Washington).
- Government-related work: This may include participation in government research or undercover work. For example, your 17-year-old may volunteer in a "sting" operation for local law enforcement (in a few states, including Illinois and Texas).
- Educational purposes: This can include a food service program or another research purpose. For example, your older teen may taste and add wine to a sauce while attending culinary school (in at least 10 states, including California and North Carolina).
Recently, states have added exceptions for underage persons out drinking who call 911 to get emergency medical assistance for a friend. This type of exception generally provides the caller immunity from prosecution for the misdemeanor minor in possession charge. Public health and safety advocates do not want young people to avoid getting help in an emergency out of fear of prosecution. For example, say your friend is driving under the influence (DUI) and has an accident. He is injured and needs help. A possible charge of underage drinking should not prevent you from calling 911.
States are taking steps to avoid problematic drinking in young people. To discourage excessive midnight drinking as a "rite of passage" on a 21st birthday, some states (including Minnesota) have passed laws providing that, for purposes of alcohol consumption, a minor is not an adult until 8:00 a.m. on their birthday.
Contributing to Delinquency: Legal Defenses
Beyond the above exceptions that can act as defenses, an offender may consider legal defenses often raised by businesses accused of selling alcohol to minors. This may include mistake of fact regarding the age of the minor child.
Some state laws specifically state that only "parents, legal guardians, and others who have care of custody of a child," may be charged with contributing to delinquency. If the offender does not fit the correct legal relationship, they may seek dismissal. Yet, many states today have broadened the category of persons covered by the contributing to delinquency charge. Your state may prohibit this conduct by "any person."
Different jurisdictions disagree over whether the behavior must lead to an act of delinquency. There also may be differences between states on the required mens rea (or intent) for a guilty finding. Some states only require the intent to commit the act in question, regardless of whether the defendant knew the minor's actual age. Others allow an affirmative defense based on a lack of mens rea, such as being unaware of the minor's age and, thus, not intending to commit the crime.
Contributing to Delinquency: Other Delinquent Acts
Contributing to delinquency laws in most states are written broadly. They cover situations other than underage alcohol consumption. Law enforcement may pursue charges against an adult assisting a minor in violating the curfew law of a local community. Likewise, an adult who hides a runaway child or a child who regularly skips school might face contributing to delinquency charges. A child's status as a runaway or habitual truant from school will factor in a court determination that the child is delinquent or unruly under state law.
Unfortunately, some minor children become involved in illegal drug use or sexual activity. This may occur without a parent or legal guardian's knowledge. An adult encouraging such behaviors or taking steps to help a minor engage in such acts may risk criminal liability for contributing to delinquency. In Ohio, if a minor has been required to register as a sex offender, the parent can face contributing to delinquency charges if they do not ensure that the minor child complies with the registration laws.
Contributing to Delinquency: Possible Penalties
In most states, contributing to delinquency is a misdemeanor offense. Upon a guilty plea or a finding of guilt at trial, the court can sentence the offender to city or county jail, fines, and costs. However, if there is no significant criminal record, the court may consider alternatives to jail time. The court may suspend a jail sentence and set a term of probation. Conditions of probation can include:
- Completing community service
- Making restitution (in cases of damage)
- Completing an alcohol or substance abuse intervention program (when appropriate)
Often, the court may have probation complete an assessment prior to sentencing. The court can then tailor the sentence to the specific programs that will help the offender.
Contributing to Delinquency: State Law Examples
Here are a few examples of specific state laws for contributing to delinquency:
- California (Cal. Pen. Code § 272): Includes acts that "tend to" cause delinquency; charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $2,500 and up to one year in jail
- Florida (Florida Statute Section 827.04): Charged as a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail; the statute explicitly states that it is not necessary for the child to have actually committed an act of delinquency to be charged with contributing to delinquency
- Ohio (Ohio Revised Code Section 2919.24): Ohio law also has the term "unruly child" in reference to a juvenile delinquent; the statute explicitly states that each day of violation can be seen as a separate offense
Charged With Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor? Get Help From an Attorney
The elements of contributing to the delinquency of a minor can vary significantly between jurisdictions. It can be helpful to get legal advice to assist your defense. A qualified attorney will know the elements of a contributing to delinquency charge in your state. They can analyze your situation to help you evaluate any available defenses. They can help prepare you for the best possible outcome. Consider contacting a local criminal defense lawyer today.