Underage drinking party: Law and consequences

Can a minor get in trouble for being at a party with alcohol?

An underage drinking party or teenage parties and the law isn’t like it used to be when we were growing up. It used to be more or less seen as a “right of passage” for a teenage house party to happen when someone’s parents were out of town. The police show up and break it up. Everyone moves on.

Some parents used to host teen drinking parties on the thought that supervised alcohol drinking was better than the alternative. Not any more. The legal landscape is unmerciful for the underaged and those over the age of 21 when it comes to a party or gathering with alcohol.

Underage drinking law in PA

The Pennsylvania underage drinking law forbids anybody under the age of 21 to:

  • attempt to purchase,
  • purchase,
  • consume,
  • possess,
  • or knowingly and intentionally transport

any liquor or malt or brewed beverages.

What is unique about the Pennsylvania teen drinking law is that it criminalizes transportation of alcohol by someone under the age of 21 even if there is someone over 21 in the car.

The law and consequences of an underage drinking party in PA can be extreme

Can a minor get in trouble if he is at an adult party with alcohol but doesn’t drink?

When you read the law, the answer is obviously no. Just being around alcohol and being under 21 is not in and of itself illegal. This holds true if someone over the age of 21 is there or not. As long as you don’t attempt to purchase, purchase, consume, possess, or knowingly and intentionally transport alcohol, you are in good shape. An underage drinking party can get even more dicey. Let’s see why.

Does that mean that if you are caught at a drinking party and the police detain you that they won’t try to get a list of names from you under threat of a conspiracy charge?

No. It doesn’t mean that. But in order for there to be a conspiracy charge, there has to be an agreement to break the law and an “act in furtherance” if that conspiracy. If you provide the cash for the alcohol or the car to transport it (but don’t drive it) or the house for the party, you may be in a tight spot. That is why it is always best to “lawyer up” and not answer any questions, but do so respectfully.

Can my parents get in trouble for a teen drinking party?

A minor’s parents can get in trouble for being at a party with alcohol and minors in certain circumstances. Again, the answer depends on the surrounding facts. But it is not hard to imagine how they could. The law as it reads is simple. If a parent intentionally and knowingly furnishes (gives or makes available) alcohol to minors, then the government can charge the parent with selling or furnishing alcohol to minors. 

  • For example, turning a “blind eye” and leaving a keg unattended during a graduation party where it is pretty obvious to anyone there that the kids are going to get to it and drink from it is a potential problem.
  • Contrast that with a circumstance where the parents have a locked liquor cabinet and the kids sneak open the lock to get hard liquor to drink. Ordinarily, under that type of circumstances, the government will not be able to hold the parents accountable.

The key language in the statute is “intentional and knowing.” Therefore, the battle usually surrounds the crafting of the facts by the government’s lawyers, the police versus your attorney. Everyone in the family can get in trouble with an underage drinking party. You must have a great lawyer who knows how to craft these facts.

Likewise, if the conduct is knowing or intentional, the government can look to add other misdemeanor charges such as corruption of a minor. 

How do the police find out about underage drinking parties?

There’s lots of ways:

  • neighbors report it,
  • teachers report it,
  • police drive by and see it,
  • the PA underage drinking hotline is called 1-888-UNDER21,
  • some police monitor social media, or
  • tragedy strikes

The last category is the most serious: Tragedy strikes.

Every year, sadly, underage drivers die in DUI crashes. Sometimes, the underage driver kills other people and survives. In those cases, the police investigate where the underage DUI person got the alcohol. In those cases, the government shows no mercy. They come after everyone and come hard. They look to “send out a message” about underage drinking and driving by not simply holding folks accountable, but publicizing the prosecution to the maximum and look for extraordinarily harsh sentencing. We have a lot of experience in these cases. You can’t trust just anyone to handle it. Years or decades are on the line.

What happens if a minor is caught with alcohol at school?

This is every parent’s nightmare phone call from the Superintendent’s office. They have your child detained for being drunk or drinking at school. Maybe they did a “random” locker search and found beer cans. Maybe some other kid planted hard liquor in your kid’s bag to get back at them for some slight. Whatever the case is, that phone call is very serious because the consequences for having alcohol at school varies.

Will the police charge a student for possession of alcohol on school property?

Will they interrogate your kid to get a confession?

Can that confession be used against your child in court?

Can you be charged?

In addition to those questions that you need answered before going to the school or consenting to your child being questioned by the police, you have to keep in mind that a minor could get suspended or expelled from school for this. There goes college. So if this is going on right now to you, stop reading and call us. It is an emergency. 717-657-3900. We will protect you.

Additional recommended reading:

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PA DUI attorney Justin J. McShane is the President/CEO of The McShane Firm, LLC - Pennsylvania's top criminal law and DUI law firm. He is the highest rated DUI attorney in PA as rated by Avvo.com. Justin McShane is a double Board certified attorney. He is the first and so far the only Pennsylvania attorney to achieve American Bar Association recognized board certification in DUI defense from the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. He is also a Board Certified Criminal Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Approved Agency.