Nedlin: On minors and alcohol

Richard Nedlin
Guest Commentary

For as long as there has been alcohol, there has been underage drinking. It is a rite of passage for many middle school, high school and college students and has become a societal norm that is readily accepted. I for one am guilty of having been part of that growing-up passage! However, this seemingly everyday occurrence can have some significant legal, personal and societal consequences.

The law in Colorado is that no one younger than 21 may purchase, consume or possess ethyl alcohol. If so, they have committed the crime known statewide as minor in possession of alcohol, often referred to as an MIP. This crime is a strict-liability offense, which means the individual does not have to have intent to commit the crime. In essence, just being in possession, even unknowingly, will get you into trouble.

That being said, there is a caveat. Someone younger than 21 may possess or consume alcohol under certain circumstances. I hear the “Yahoo!” out there as I type this. Individuals younger than 21 may possess or consume alcohol if it is done on private property, with the consent of the owner and while in the presence and with the consent of a legal guardian or parent. So, if you allow your son or daughter to have a beer or a glass of wine while in your home or on your property, they are free to imbibe.

Another scenario of when it is lawful is if the person is a student and tastes alcohol under the direct supervision of an instructor employed by a post-secondary school or it is done as part of a culinary school program. Lastly, if the consumption of alcohol is done for religious purposes, it is protected by the First Amendment. Fraternities, listen up: I do not recommend establishing an organized religion solely for the consumption of alcohol!

Lawmakers also added an immunity part to the underage-drinking statute. The law provides that any person younger than 21 will be immune from prosecution if they call 911 to report, in good faith, that another underage person is in need of medical assistance, they give their name to the operator and they are the first to report the incident. That person must then remain at the scene with the person in need of assistance and stay and cooperate with medical personnel or law enforcement. Unfortunately, most kids are not aware of this provision of the law and usually run when they see someone very sick, thinking they will get in trouble themselves for drinking, which is quite unfortunate because early reporting may help save a life of someone facing alcohol poisoning.

So what are the criminal consequences if you consume or possess alcohol and you are underage? Upon conviction of a first offense, there is a fine of as much as $250, and the court, upon its discretion, may have the individual perform as many as 24 hours of useful public service. For a second offense, there will be a fine of as much as $500, and the individual must submit to, and complete, an alcohol evaluation, assessment or treatment program at their own expense. Upon conviction of a third or subsequent offense, it now becomes a Class 2 misdemeanor. This means that the offender may be sentenced to as much as one year in the county jail and fined as much as $1,000, as well as having to undergo alcohol treatment and therapy. However, there also are potential consequences that can affect an offender’s driver’s license. Upon a first conviction, the Colorado Department of Revenue may revoke the offender’s license for three months, for a second conviction six months, and for a third or subsequent offense one year.

Still, there also are collateral consequences to having an MIP conviction. For instance, there are many federal student loans that will not be granted or may be revoked upon a finding of such a conviction. Additionally, if the underage drinking occurs on a college campus or some other educational property, the offender will most often have to suffer the institution’s consequences of probation or possible expulsion along with state criminal sanctions. I also have seen students have their academic scholarships revoked for MIP convictions.

The trickle-down and overflow effect of underage drinking is immeasurable. In my experience as a prosecutor, it is a safe bet that 90 percent of all criminal cases are fueled by alcohol or drug consumption. As for MIP cases, the majority of arrests was because people acted idiotically while intoxicated in public and brought attention to themselves through their own intoxication. From those verbally abusing passers-by on the street to fighting in public to damaging property, most kids just drink to excess and cannot hold their alcohol, thereby inevitably finding themselves contacted by law enforcement. Especially in a place like Aspen, which is small and intimate, law enforcement has a very good pulse of what is going on in the community and where the next house or backwoods parties are taking place, and they are able to intervene before someone is possibly injured. As beautiful of a place as Aspen is, it is also inherently dangerous to our youth, especially when alcohol is involved given winter driving conditions and the extreme low temperatures.

Based on my observations as a prosecutor and the countless defendants I have seen before me, it is plain to see that alcohol really is the gateway drug and not marijuana, as has long been thought. A recent study in the Journal of School Health found that high school seniors who had consumed alcohol at least once in their lives were 13 times more likely to use cigarettes, 16 times more likely to use marijuana and other narcotics and 13 times more likely to use cocaine. Based on that and other peer-review studies, it is safe to say that alcohol education, awareness and abstinence regarding youth and alcohol are the best prevention and deterrents to greater alcohol and drug use, which would thereby help prevent future criminal acts.

Richard Nedlin is a former prosecutor in Aspen and now practices criminal defense. He can be contacted at 970-309-8197 and