Underage drinking is a hot topic these days. There are forums and websites for parents and students to discuss it; there are educational programs designed to inform adolescents about the perils and consequences of underage drinking; there are tragedies to remind us of the costs to individuals, families and communities.
The highly publicized tragedy often spurs the community into action. Perhaps education and action before another parent receives that dreaded phone call late at night would be the wiser course for all of us in the community. This brief article presents an overview of the basic laws that govern how your law enforcement community deals with underage drinking.
Everyone knows that the drinking age is 21. It’s AGAINST THE LAW for an underage person to drink alcohol, possess alcohol, have alcohol in her system, purchase alcohol, lie about her age to purchase alcohol. RSA 179. It’s AGAINST THE LAW for anyone over 21 to give, sell, or procure alcohol for persons under 21. It’s AGAINST THE LAW for all citizens to drive while impaired from drinking. RSA 265:82. The per se limit is .08 blood alcohol level (BAC). If a person is under 21 years of age, the limit is .02 (BAC). So how much alcohol is that? Generally speaking (this is a rough measure), a 115 pound female who drinks two 12 ounce regular beers over 2 hours will have a blood alcohol level between .05 and .06. As the time is shortened, this measure goes up. This is measured by a breath or blood test. If you have a driver’s license you are deemed to have consented to such a test when asked by law enforcement after an arrest for impaired driving. If you decide to refuse the test, you lose your license for a period of time. This can happen even if a judge makes a finding of not guilty or decides that the police officer violated your constitutional rights.
The confidentiality of juvenile records (children under 17 who commit crimes) does NOT apply to violations under RSA 179 or under the motor vehicle code for children who are at least 16 years old. So, if a 16 year old violates one of these laws, the record is public. These cases are not litigated behind closed doors; they are heard in open court and the results can be published in the newspaper.
What does it cost? In short, a lot. The financial costs are high both in terms of fines, mandated educational programs, and increased insurance costs. There is lost work and school time from mandatory court appearances. There is the conviction which stays on the criminal/motor vehicle record. There is the loss of driving privileges/license. There might be time spent in jail or prison depending on the gravity of the offense. Or a tragedy resulting in lives changed by injury or death. Is it worth it?
Janice S. Peterson
New Hampshire Public Defender Program