Monday, May 20, 2013

Underage Drinking: What To Do When The Party's Over

It’s that time of the year again when Prom, “Senior Skip Day,” Graduation and Beach Week all lead to one thing:  Underage Drinking.  So, what should you do when you get that dreaded phone call or knock on the door and your teen has been arrested?  Protect his rights.  Protect her future.  Calling an attorney is not about “getting your kid out of it,” it’s about making sure that a foolish mistake doesn’t cause long-term damage.

Most people know that purchasing, possessing or drinking alcohol when under 21 years of age is a crime, with a few exceptions.[1]  Underage drinking is formally charged as Underage Possession of Alcohol.  If your teen is 18 years or older, this is a misdemeanor criminal offense that carries a maximum punishment of 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine, as well as a 6- to 12-month suspension of the right to operate a motor vehicle.[2]  The case will proceed through the General District Court for final disposition. 

If your teen is under 18, the case will proceed through the juvenile justice system.  Purchasing, possessing or drinking alcohol is considered a “delinquent act,” not a crime.  Not all juvenile arrests for underage drinking result in court proceedings, but if the case does proceed to court in Virginia, it will be handled by the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.  If the Judge determines that the facts are sufficient to justify a finding of underage drinking, the court must deny driving privileges for at least 6 months or deny the child's ability to apply for a driver's license for six months following the date she reaches the age of 16 and three months.  Other potential dispositions include, but are not limited to, mandatory attendance and completion of law-related or substance abuse educational or rehabilitative programs, community service, “house arrest, ” probation, or fines. 

Whether your teen is under 18 years old or not, the Commonwealth must prove its case in court.  Never assume the case is a ”slam dunk” for the prosecution, at any stage.   Your teen cannot be found guilty by association--merely being at a party is not a basis to convict.   Your teen typically cannot be found guilty merely because the officer detects the odor of alcohol.   Your teen has rights, including the right not to answer questions and to refuse a breath test at the scene.  If challenged, the prosecutor must prove your teen’s rights have not been violated or face a potential dismissal of the case.

A “finding of delinquency” or a criminal conviction has collateral consequences you might not think of or know about.  If you find yourself in this situation in the coming weeks of parties – or at any time – the attorneys of RRBMDK can help.

[1] For example, underage consumption of alcohol in Virginia is allowed in private, residential homes as long as the underage person is accompanied by the physical presence of a parent, legal guardian, or spouse who is at least 21.  Va. Code § 4.1-200.

[2] Public Intoxication is also a misdemeanor, but the maximum penalty is a $250 fine (and a 6-month license suspension if your teen is under 18).  Va. Code §§ 16.1-278.9, 18.2-388.