As noted above, the National Minimum Drinking Age Law of 1984 provides that States will lose certain highway funds unless they make the purchase and public possession of alcohol by minors illegal. The statute does not provide specific guidance regarding the definition of “public possession,” which by its terms does not include possession in privately owned locations.

All States prohibit possession of alcohol by minors to some extent, and all appear to be in compliance with the federal statute. However, States apply various statutory exceptions, and these exceptions are more expansive and more prevalent than those found in purchasing statutes.

Exceptions found in the chart below are defined as follows:

  • Employment—45 States permit minors to possess alcohol in connection with their employment. One State, Wyoming, also allows possession by minors who are licensees.

  • Student—6 States permit minors to possess alcohol in connection with being a student or for educational purposes (often specifically linked to culinary schools).

  • Religious services—18 States allow minors to possess alcohol in connection with religious services.

  • Medical treatment—14 States allow minors to possess alcohol in connection with medical treatment.

  • Parent, guardian, or custodian consent or presence—33 States permit minors to possess alcohol in the presence of, accompanied by, or with the consent of a parent, guardian, or custodian. States vary widely in terms of which relatives must be present for the exception to apply and in what circumstances. For example, Massachusetts allows possession by minors if they are “accompanied by parent or legal guardian”; Delaware allows possession in the “private home” of any “members of the same family”; Oregon allows possession of alcohol in a “private residence . . . accompanied by parent or guardian . . . with [his or her] consent,” etc.

  • Spouse consent or presence—9 States permit minors to possess alcohol in the presence of or with the consent of their legal-aged spouse.

Three exceptions are related: the first, Any Private Location, includes Private Residence, which, in turn, includes Only Minor’s/Parent’s/Guardian’s Home. States were categorized according to the most narrowly drawn category into which their statutory provisions fit. States vary in the extent of the private property exception and the specific wording.

  • Any private location—10 States allow minors to possess alcohol in any private location (including any private residence or venue). This exception is often implied by statutory provisions that indicate the converse – that is, a State prohibits minors from possessing alcohol in any public place.

  • Private residence—7 States allow minors to possess alcohol only in a private residence.

  • Only minor’s, parent’s, or guardian’s home—4 States permit minors to possess alcohol only in the minor’s, parent’s, or guardian’s home or primary residence.

  • Law enforcement—9 States permit minors to possess alcohol in connection with an investigation or “sting” operation conducted by law enforcement officials (and, in several States, licensees or employers, see footnotes below) to identify illegal alcohol sales. This exception often requires parental consent and specifies a minimum age at which minors can participate; many States require minors to be at least 18 years old. Many States may have this exception as part of an administrative decision even though there is no statutory provision. As noted above, our analysis does not include such decisions.

The exceptions related to possession on private property and in private residences are the most important in terms of underage drinking and related problems. Law enforcement officials report that the exceptions can create significant barriers to preventing or ending underage drinking parties in private settings, particularly in private residences. Many communities report that these events often involve heavy drinking, drinking and driving, sexual assaults, and other forms of violence. Yet in some States, the minors involved in the events are not violating the law, and if no adult is present, no crime is being committed.

As with purchase statutes, the law enforcement exception provides an important tool for enforcing prohibitions on sales to minors. Note that this exception probably does not need to be present in both the possession and the purchase provisions. An effective compliance check can be conducted if the minor involved is allowed to purchase or possess alcohol as part of the enforcement procedure.

Possession of Alcohol by Minors

(click to view Table)