Underage Drinking: What Does the Law Say?


Introduction

Underage drinking laws can be confusing, change over time, and vary by state. Parents and teens are often unclear about the laws and have misconceptions about the consequences of breaking the laws. Let’s explore the underage drinking laws in Montana and discuss scenarios that you, as a parent, might encounter. Please note that certain localities may have stricter laws (ordinances), laws change, and that this information is not a substitute for legal advice.

Montana law allows someone under the age of 21 years to possess or consume a non-intoxicating quantity of alcohol when it is:1

  • Provided by the minor’s parent or guardian in a private location (e.g., home or a private party) and not in a public place where alcohol is sold;
  • Used by a physician or dentist for medicinal purposes;
  • Distributed by a licensed pharmacist upon the prescription of a physician; or
  • Used by an ordained minister or priest in connection with a religious service.

A non-intoxicating quantity means that there is no visible mental or physical impairment or intoxication, or a blood alcohol content of no higher than 0.05.1 A .05 blood alcohol content is on average is the equivalent to less than half a beer.

So, What Exactly Is Illegal?

For Children Under the Age of 21

  • It is illegal for someone under the age of 21 to possess or consume alcohol in a public place with or without parental consent.
  • It is illegal for someone under the age of 21 to possess or consume alcohol without parental consent, when not for medical reasons or in connection with a religious service.
  • It is illegal to use a false ID to buy alcohol.
  • It is illegal for someone under the age of 21 to drive with a blood alcohol content greater than 0.02.

For Adults

  • It is illegal to provide someone under the age of 21 with alcohol or to buy alcohol for someone under the age of 21, unless you are the parent/guardian of the child.
  • If you are the parent/guardian, it is illegal to provide your minor with an intoxicating level of alcohol.

Most Montana parents (74%) agree that parents should not let their high school age children drink alcohol at home.

Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). 2017 Montana Parent Survey Key Findings Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

Legal Consequences

For Children Under the Age of 21

Knowingly possessing or consuming alcohol to an intoxicating level when under the age of 21 can result in a minor in possession charge. The consequences of possessing alcohol under the age of 21 differ based on whether the person is under 18 or between 18 and 21. For details on penalties associated with a minor in possession charge, see https://www.mdt.mt.gov/visionzero/docs/mip_penalties.pdf.

It is a misdemeanor for someone under the age of 21 to drive a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content greater than 0.02.

For Adults

It is a misdemeanor offense to supply someone under the age of 21 with alcohol or to provide your child under the age of 21 with an intoxicating level of alcohol.

What If Scenarios….

Supplying Alcohol

What if I take my child into a bar? Can I provide them alcohol there?

No, you cannot provide someone under the age of 21 alcohol in a public place known to sell alcoholic beverages.

What about at a restaurant?

No, you cannot provide someone under the age of 21 alcohol in a public place known to sell alcoholic beverages.

What if my child (under the age of 21) goes to a party at a friend’s house, and their parents provide my child alcohol? Is that illegal?

According to Montana law, only parents or guardians may provide a non-intoxicating amount of alcohol to their own child under the age of 21.

Current criminal statutes in Montana do not address social hosting, which is providing alcohol to someone under the age of 21 at a party you are hosting. Instead, cities have their own ordinances and penalties for violating social hosting laws.

For example, in Helena, municipal criminal law (ordinances) holds hosts accountable for providing alcohol to minors who are not their own children.

In Billings, a social host can be charged with a misdemeanor if there is underage possession or consumption of alcohol in the social host’s home, even if the social host is not present. Social host is defined as a person who owns or rents the home where the event is taking place and permits such an event or gathering.

Most Montana parents (91%) DISAPPROVE of high school students drinking alcohol.

Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). 2017 Montana Parent Survey Key Findings Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

What are the potential legal consequences for providing someone under 21 alcohol in my home? Can I be charged? Can there be a civil lawsuit? Can I lose my house?

Social host liabilities vary depending on local laws and in many cities in Montana, social hosts can be charged with a misdemeanor. Montana state law allows for civil liability because of providing alcohol to someone underage. Liability limit for non-economic damages is $250,000 and for punitive damages is $250,000.

What if I am away on vacation and my child hosts a party at our home, am I legally responsible?

Different cities have different social hosting ordinances about this issue. For example, in Helena, the adult is not responsible if the party was hosted while the adult was away and without the adult’s knowledge. In other cities, the homeowner can be held liable even if the homeowner was not present.

Consuming Alcohol

What if my child is at a party where others are consuming alcohol? If he is not consuming alcohol, would he still get arrested because he is under the age of 21 and around others who are consuming alcohol illegally?

No, according to Montana law (45-5-624), your child may not be arrested for being around others who are drinking if they have not consumed alcohol and are not in possession of alcohol. However, they could receive an MIP for being at a party where there is alcohol present. Also, they could be violating their school’s code of conduct policy which would not have legal consequences but would have consequences at school.

Any amount of alcohol can have an impact on the developing brain.

What are the consequences for a minor consuming alcohol at a party hosted by an older adult sibling?

Knowingly possessing or consuming alcohol to an intoxicating level when under the age of 21 can result in a minor in possession charge. The consequences of possessing alcohol under the age of 21 differ based on whether the person is under 18 or between 18 and 21.

Most Montana parents (75%) DISAGREE that alcohol is a necessary component of celebrations.

Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). 2017 Montana Parent Survey Key Findings Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

Impaired Driving

What if my child drinks alcohol and is planning to drive home, how long does my child need to wait before he can drive safely?

The simplest answer is to tell your child that if they have had anything to drink, do not drive. Establish family rules about never driving after drinking and never riding with someone who has been drinking and discuss the dangers of such behaviors. When establishing family rules, you can talk about your expectations, develop consequences for such behaviors, and discuss alternative behaviors that you do support like calling you for a ride or calling alternative transportation options. Ensure your child that if they choose to call you for a ride, there will be no negative repercussions. Engaging your child in a conversation about these behaviors, discussing various situations that might arise and ways to handle those situations can support your child when they are in high stress situations. Drinking any amount of alcohol and driving or riding with a driver who has been drinking is dangerous.

For more information go to:

https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/teendrinkinganddriving/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/parentsarethekey/agreement/index.html

https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/teen-driving

Most Montana parents (90%) DISAGREE that drinking among teenagers is safe if they do not drive after drinking.

Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). 2017 Montana Parent Survey Key Findings Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

Conclusion

As a parent, you make a lot of decisions about what is acceptable or not acceptable for your child regarding alcohol use. Knowing the underage drinking laws and ordinances in your community and state can help you make informed decisions about what is best for your child. It is natural to have a lot of questions about the laws on underage drinking. Underage drinking laws can vary, and you may be faced with a variety of different scenarios. . As a parent, you are key to helping your child prevent harm associated with alcohol. By implementing strategies such as talking and listening, establishing rules, modeling positive behavior, monitoring, and clarifying misperceptions, you can make a difference in your child’s life.

Find out more!

Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.

References

[1] Montana Code Annotated – 16-6-305 and 45-5-624

Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Underage Drinking: What Does the Law Say? Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.

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