Minor Possession of Alcohol? Advice from Spokane, Washington Lawyer

Minor in Possession of Alcohol

They say it is a rite of passage for young adults to try alcohol.  So I suppose parents shouldn’t be surprised when their kids get caught, and they receive “the phone call” from police or school officials. Our society sends kids mixed messages on the subject of alcohol.  Our justice system makes it a criminal offense to consume alcohol until someone is 21 years of age. Image of Minor in Possession However, it is almost as if no one expects literal compliance with this law.  Most parents seem to accept some level of occasional “social drinking” when the child is 19 or 20 years old, and sometimes even when the child is still in high school.  This is usually no different for parents in law enforcement; it is just not discussed openly.  Despite the prevalence of underage drinking, many parents are still caught off guard and baffled as to how to react when their child comes home at night accompanied by a police officer.  It helps to know what to expect from the criminal justice system.

Courts and Minor in Possession of Alcohol

What occurs when your child is caught with alcohol depends largely on the child’s age.

For youths under 18

Children under 18 go to juvenile court, but if they have no prior offenses, they are sent to pre-trial diversion.  When the police detain your child for Minor in Possession (MIP), they rarely are taken to jail and booked.  Rather the police usually give the child a ride home or more likely will call you to come pick up the child. Image of Underage Drinking The police can’t cite a juvenile with a “ticket,” rather the officer will inform you that paperwork will be coming in the mail.  This can often take several weeks, leaving parents confused about the delay.  The notice in the mail often comes from the juvenile court probation officer who will invite you and your child in for a meeting.  At that point, your child will be invited to sign a “diversion agreement.”  Rather than go to court the charge will be “diverted” away from the court system and over to the local community diversion board.  The diversion board will meet with the child and parent and decide on a punishment.  The punishment could be an essay to write or community service hours.  The diversion board will sometime refer your child for an evaluation for chemical dependency.  Accepting a diversion agreement will suspend your child’s driver’s license or learner’s permit (or ability to obtain one) for 12 months.  However, early re-instatement is possible after 3 months.  A child has a right to confer with a criminal defense lawyer prior to accepting the diversion agreement, but this usually means finding a private attorney.

If diversion is rejected

If your child rejects diversion, he or she will be charged and sent through the juvenile court system.  If your teen is innocent or denies having possessed or consumed alcohol, he or she can reject the diversion agreement and have the case sent to court.  Once the case is sent to juvenile court, the prosecutor will have to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a juvenile court judge.  Your child can apply for a public defender. Parents may obtain a private lawyer for their child as well. There are no juries in a juvenile court, so the judge will decide the case based on the testimony of the officer.  Occasionally the prosecutor will call other witnesses such as school officials or other juveniles, but the trials are usually pretty brief. Parents can be called as witnesses against their own children, but this is less common.  If the judge finds your child guilty of MIP, the judge will impose a sentence requiring your child to do community service hours and maybe have your child do an alcohol evaluation to make sure he or she is not chemically dependent.  The conviction will cause your child’s license to be suspended for 1 year as with a diversion agreement, but your child may be eligible for early reinstatement.

In juvenile court, the terminology is different than adult court.  In juvenile court a defendant is called a “respondent”, a trial is called a “fact finding” or “adjudicatory hearing”, and a sentencing is called a “disposition hearing.”  In the juvenile court system the parents or guardians are also summoned in and required to appear for court hearings.

For defendants over 18

A young adult (age 18-20) charged with MIP goes through adult court.  The adult courts that handle such offenses are the district courts of Washington or local municipal courts.  There is no formal diversion program in Washington State for these sort of MIPs, however prosecutors will sometimes make offers to resolve a case where it is dismissed after one year if the defendant stays out of trouble. Image of MIP Lawyer A defendant is sometimes asked to obtain an alcohol / drug evaluation or asked to attend an 8-hour Alcohol Drug Information School.  Unlike juvenile court, parents are not involved when a MIP defendant is over 18.  This is true even when the 18 year old is still in high school and living at home.  An 18 year old is entitled to a jury trial, and unlike a defendant under 18, he or she will not face a license suspension.  However, an adult defendant convicted of MIP will have a criminal conviction that is public record.

Sometimes the lines between 17 and 18 year olds are blurred.  When a 17 year old is caught with alcohol, he or she still may end up in adult court.  To avoid adult court, the 17 year old must accept a diversion agreement or be formally charged prior to his or her 18th birthday.  So 17 year olds who offend just before their 18th birthday often find themselves sucked into adult court simply due to administrative delay.  Once the matter is in juvenile court, the judge can extend the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a year or more.  However, the department of licensing (in deciding whether to suspend the child’s license) will only look at how old the child was on the date of the offense.

Repeat offenders

As one would imagine, repeat offenders of MIP usually face a tougher time with the court system.  If a child or young adult is on probation and re-offends, he or she may face jail time, or could be ordered to be evaluated for possible chemical dependency.

Selective prosecution

Parents are often concerned that the MIP laws are not being evenly enforced.  Just as parents have differing views on teens and alcohol, so do police officers.  It is not uncommon at all for the police to overlook or ignore cases of MIP.  This is particularly true in instances where the suspect is a bit older or has smaller quantities of alcohol in his or her possession, and does not pose a threat of driving.  However, police can also play favorites, or single out children for arrest due to personal bias.  In my experience as a criminal defense lawyer (and former prosecuting attorney), in small towns the police seem to overlook certain cases where the parents are influential.  In rural counties such as Okanogan or Stevens County, the police officers are more likely to know the kids compared to urban areas like Spokane.

Getting into the military

Many parents of high school kids are worried that an MIP could prevent their son or daughter from getting into the military.  Generally speaking, such a conviction would not prevent a child from entering the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, etc.  However, if your child is planning on entering the military, you should certainly mention this to the juvenile probation officer or criminal defense lawyer that your child is working with.  The military won’t accept your son or daughter if he or she still has obligations to the court.  Sometimes it is possible to terminate a diversion or probationary period early to make a child eligible.

Urinalysis

The courts do not make use of urinalysis or UA tests as much as most parents would think.  These sort of tests are more common in cases of marijuana use, or when a juvenile is on his or her second or third Minor in Possession of Alcohol charge.

Criminal defense attorneys and parents

It is important for parents to understand the job of a criminal defense attorney. Image of Teen Drinking  The lawyer’s job is to represent the child.  Even if the parents are the ones to pay for the lawyer, this does not change the relationship.  Usually, a criminal defense lawyer will ask the parents to sign a fee agreement explaining that they will not have any control over the representation of the child.  In my experience, parents are often of two minds when their son or daughter has been charged.  On one hand they hope that their child learns their lesson, but they don’t want their child to have a criminal record.  Sometimes a parent thinks it is in the child’s best interest to be held accountable.  However, it is the job of the defense attorney to give the defendant “zealous representation” including researching ways to have the case dismissed on a technicality.  As odd as it may sound, it is not the defense lawyer’s job to do “what is best” for the child.  Rather a defense lawyer is ethically bound to listen to the client and to respect the client’s decision as to whether the case should resolve by plea or be taken to trial.  In my practice as a criminal defense lawyer, I do usually explain the seriousness of the problem of underage drinking to my clients.  If the parents take the incident very seriously, it is certainly not very helpful for the defense lawyer to treat the matter lightheartedly.  Any criminal defense lawyer would admit that 80% of their caseload is related to alcohol and drug abuse.  None of us ever want our teen clients to turn into “repeat customers.”

When your child is called as a witness

A child cannot commit the crime of Minor in Possession of Alcohol without obtaining the alcohol from someone.  Sometimes a child will take the alcohol from a parent without the parent’s permission.  However, usually the child was given the beer or the wine by someone over 21.  If your child identified the individual to the police, it may be that he or she will be called to testify against that adult.  Occasionally, a child will receive immunity on their criminal charge if they testify against the adult.  However, this is not always the case.  I have had cases where parents have complained to authorities about the adult in question, only to have their son or daughter be subpoenaed.   If your son or daughter is subpoenaed to testify in a Furnishing Alcohol to Minor case, he or she should probably speak to an attorney as soon as possible.

Regional differences

MIP cases are often handled differently in different counties.  For example, in Spokane the court systems are more congested then in rural areas such as Stevens County, or Okanogan County.   In Spokane County District Court, the courts have a more active probation department where your son or daughter could be assigned an actual probation officer.  Additionally, it seems like the public defenders have a heavier caseload in more urban areas such as Spokane.

Minor in possession on college campuses

When kids leave for college, it seems as if part of the experience is to use or at least try alcohol.  College campuses and the different residence halls usually have different policies on the subject of involving the police.  The way such cases are handled at Washington State University may not be the way such cases are handled at Eastern Washington University or Gonzaga.  Usually, a first-offense for Minor in Possession will not lead a student to get kicked out of the dormitories.  When the minor is in college, lawyers have to try their best to work a resolution of the case that doesn’t involve a conviction.  No college student wants to hit the job market with a criminal record.

For more information, see our firm’s webpage on Minor in Possession.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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