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What should you know about Virginia’s underage drinking laws?

Virginia imposes significant penalties for underage alcohol consumption, many of which may affect minors well into their futures.

Getting to know oneself, trying new or different things, and making mistakes are all part of growing up. While no one expects young adults to be perfect while they are learning to navigate society and life, certain missteps in judgment during early adulthood can carry significant consequences. One such type of mistake involves experimentation with alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that approximately 58% of teenagers have had at least one alcoholic drink by the time they reach 18-years-old, and 11% of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S. gets consumed by teens and young adults between the ages of 12- and 20-years-old

As parents, understanding the state’s underage alcohol laws may help them protect their children from making the types of mistakes that could potentially compromise their future educational and employment opportunities.

Consuming alcohol as a minor

The legal age for drinking alcohol in Virginia is 21-years-old, and generally speaking, the state has zero-tolerance policy regarding underage alcohol consumption. Surprisingly, convictions for underage alcohol consumption in Virginia can carry up to 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500.00 fine. Further, a conviction for underage alcohol consumption in Virginia carries a mandatory 6-month suspension of driving privileges. Under current Virginia law, the human body is considered to be a “container” which means that so long as the authorities can prove that the young adult had alcohol in their system at the time of arrest, there is no need for the authorities to “catch ” the young adult with cup or can or bottle.

While Virginia does have a “first offender” disposition available for young adults charged with illegally possessing alcohol, that disposition requires the completion of expensive alcohol education programs, completion of community service hours and a probationary period. If the young adult completes the necessary requirements, the case is thereafter dismissed however, the fact that they were charged remains on their record and cannot be expunged under current Virginia Law.

Additionally, while young adults are not supposed to be in possession of alcohol at all, those who are caught driving an automobile with alcohol in their system face extremely serious sanctions. Unlike those over the age of 21, the “legal limit” for an underage driver in Virginia is 0.02%. This is generally the equivalent of having a single beer in your system. Underage drivers convicted of operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content level of at least 0.02% may face penalties that include time in jail, fines and a one-year suspension of their driver’s license. Often, the fines and the license suspension that come with such a conviction are mandatory and cannot be avoided. For convictions involving very high blood alcohol levels (0.15% and higher) the jail sentences are often mandatory and cannot be avoided either.

Establishing a false age to buy alcohol

While many young people may get alcohol at home or from their parents, it is also common for young people to take steps to procure a fake identification that would purport to establish them being “of age”. The use, procurement and simple possession of fake ID’s are all illegal under Virginia law and those who are caught using or possessing a fake ID can face significant consequences.

Like possessing alcohol underage, the penalties for possessing a fake ID can include jail, fines and a mandatory license suspension. Of greater concern, while there is a specific statute under Virginia law for the possession of a fake ID for the purpose of obtaining alcohol, many law enforcement officers are poorly trained on this issue and will instead charge the youth with violating the “general” fake ID statute. While the penalties for violating the “general” fake ID statute are no more serious, a conviction under the “general” fake ID statute can result in young people finding their names on “watch lists” for the Department of Homeland Security. Since the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, federal authorities are far more sensitive and curious about who is obtaining a fake ID and why they are doing it.

Giving alcohol to a minor

The Commonwealth of Virginia does permit underage persons to consume alcohol in certain circumstances, however, this generally requires such persons to be inside of a private residence and under the direct supervision of their parent(s) or guardian(s). This exception to the state’s zero-tolerance policy regarding underage alcohol consumption is never an excuse should the minor be found consuming alcohol in public or during the operation of a motor vehicle. Parents can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor under Virginia law and could face serious consequences of their own if they irresponsibly allow their child to consume alcohol.

Lastly, knowingly selling alcohol to a minor or otherwise providing people under the age of 21 with alcohol outside of the “parental approval and private residence exception” can carry significant consequences. A conviction for furnishing a minor with alcohol may subject the convicted adult to a possible jail sentence, a fine of up to $2,500.00 and a mandatory one-year driver’s license suspension.