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Underage Drinking

Although one would expect underage drinking to be a relatively straightforward legal topic, the Massachusetts laws on this topic are actually quite confusing, and are changing as the courts interpret and try to clarify them.

Minors in Possession of Alcohol

A minor who tries to purchase alcohol, for his/her own use or for the use of others, is punished by a fine of $300. If convicted of violating this law, the minor’s driver’s license will be suspended for 180 days.

Possession and Use of Fake IDs

Any person who makes or uses a false identification card or driver’s license can be punished by a fine of no more than $200 or imprisonment not to exceed 3 months.

Transporting Alcohol

It is illegal in Massachusetts for anyone under the age of 21 to transport alcohol unless (a) accompanied by a parent or guardian; or (b) if they are between 18-21 and they are transporting alcohol as part of their job. It is an element of the law that the minor knew he or she was transporting alcohol; borrowing your parents’ car and not knowing there’s a bottle of wine in the trunk is not a violation of the law. The fine for a first offense is no more than $50, for subsequent offenses no more than $150. A police officer can, however, arrest any minor violating this law, and a conviction under this law will lead to a 90-day driver’s license suspension.

Providing Alcohol to Minors

Under Massachusetts law it is illegal sell or deliver alcohol to someone under 21. There are additional prohibitions on obtaining alcohol in a bar, restaurant or store with the intention of providing it to someone under 21. The punishment for violation of this law is a fine of no more than $2,000, imprisonment for no more than one year, or both.

In addition to the criminal sanctions for selling alcohol to a minor, establishments with liquor licenses may face sanctions from the licensing authority, including requiring the establishment to increase its liquor liability insurance.

There are, however, exceptions to this law: adults over 21 are permitted to provide their own children and grandchildren with alcohol on property owned by the adult. Furthermore, adults are permitted to “procure” alcohol for their children, spouses, or wards who are under 21 in package stores, breweries, and wineries. Notably the law does not appear to permit parents to purchase alcohol for their children in restaurants, bars, hotels or other establishments that have what is called a “pouring” license.

One important issue to note in understanding Massachusetts laws related to underage drinking is the question of “social host liability.” Social host liability is a civil law—not criminal law—concept that addresses whether someone who hosts a party, or allows their underage child to host a party where underage drinking occurs, can be sued for any damage or injury the underage drinkers cause. In Massachusetts, the law has been that a social host can only be held liable where he or she actually provided or served the alcohol. In 2012 the Supreme Judicial Court made clear that social hosts, whether of drinking age or not, can only be liable where they provide or control the provision of alcohol to guests. The Supreme Judicial Court has also been clear, however, that regardless of the questions of whether social hosts can be sued in civil court, the criminal law prohibits adults from providing alcohol to minors who are not their children even in their own homes.

Curious facts about Massachusetts liquor laws:

  • It is illegal to serve a pitcher of beer to a single person
  • It is legal to serve a bottle of wine to a single person, but only with a meal
  • Ships with liquor licenses are limited to selling two drinks per customer
  • Bars, restaurants and hotels may not offer free drinks

If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts’ laws regarding underage drinking, please contact us at (617) 742-6020.

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