Virginia is known as one of the strictest states when it comes to penalizing underage drinking. While the reasons for this are understandable and meant for both the drinkers and public safety, many younger persons resent the harsh penalties.
Why the Minimum Drinking Age is 21 Years in Virginia
The legal public drinking age in Virginia was 21 for many years. In 1974, the age for drinking beer and wine was lowered to 18. By 1985, the age increased again to 21 years. In July 2015, the law will celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Why did Virginia change their drinking age laws in 1985?
It wasn’t really a difficult decision. It was required by the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act (23 U.S.C.A. § 158) that required all states raise their minimum drinking age to 21. Non-compliance meant loss of highway funds received under the Federal Highway Act, a powerful incentive.
Finally, and most important, younger drivers who have been drinking alcohol die in greater numbers than older drivers. In Virginia, less than 10 percent of licensed drivers are under 21 years. They account, however, for 14 percent of the DUI-related fatalities. To parents and legislators, this risk is unacceptable.
Virginia has little-known exceptions to the underage drinking laws
Under Virginia Ann. Code Section 4.1-305(A), there are the following exceptions:
- Persons under 21 years may drink if within their own home. Parents must be present when the beverages are consumed and no persons other than their own children may be served.
- The consumption of alcohol by those under 21 may take place in a private, non-alcohol selling premises. This includes a party at a private home, as long as the parents have prior knowledge and give consent
- As a condition of employment, a person under 21 years may deliver alcohol.
- Law enforcement officers who are under 21 may possess alcohol when it is both necessary and within the scope of their duties.
Which violations constitute an alcohol-related Class 1 misdemeanor?
In Virginia, the following alcohol violations carry Class 1 misdemeanor charges for persons under the age of 21:
- Purchasing, possessing or attempt to purchase or possess any alcoholic beverage.
- Operating a motor vehicle after illegally using alcohol or drugs. There is no requirement that the driver must be impaired to be charged. If the young person is driving, they also automatically consent to testing. Refusal means the driver may additional penalties and lose privileges for up to one year. Any amount detected constitutes a violation of the law.
- Using, possessing, manufacturing or selling any altered or false driver’s license, military or university identification. Loaning identification to others is also illegal and carries the same Class 1 penalties.
Virginia’s Class 1 misdemeanor penalties are sometimes harsh
Most underage drinking violations are considered as a Class 1 misdemeanor. Under the Code of Virginia § 4.1-305, by using alcohol while still under the age of 21, a young person risks:
- Fines of up to $2,500
- Up to one year in jail
- Minimum fine of no less than $500 for those under 18 and $1,000 for those from 18 to 21 years.
- Probation, including a minimum of 50 hours of community service.
- Driver’s license suspension of no less than six months and up to one year from the date of conviction. This penalty is considered a more effective deterrent to underage drinking than penalties or jail time. There are situations under which a restricted driving permit for adults (those over 18) can be granted by the presiding judge.
The chances of changing these laws are small.
While many young persons wish the chances for changing these laws are greater, the reality is that the laws seem to be working. Knowledge of the law and more responsibility would preclude the violations and therefore arrests. Relying on legal protection will never be as effective as preventing violations. While strict, most voters and legislators consider Virginia’s tough underage drinking laws to be in the interests of both the young person and the public.