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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Pennsylvania Underage Drinking Laws Need Drastic Overhaul with “Drinking License”

On Behalf of | May 7, 2013 | Underage Drinking

As a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, I have represented countless students from Penn State, Lock Haven and other schools in underage drinking cases. With underage drinking citations in a college town as widespread as the common cold, I cannot help but question both the Pennsylvania approach and national approach to underage drinking. Are America’s young people so biologically different from their European, African and Asian cousins that they cannot handle alcohol until the age of 21, while a German kid can legally drink beer and wine at age 16? The simple answer is no, and that is precisely why the 21 drinking age, in effect in all states since 1988, has been about as effective as the infamous Volstead Act, which criminalized alcohol in America from 1920 to 1933.

I concede that an intoxicated young person is far more likely to engage in bad behavior, due to simple lack of maturity, than he or she will in middle age. However, we must face the reality that young people are going to drink no matter how harsh the legal consequences, and Pennsylvania’s underage drinking prohibition is among the most draconian in the United States. In 1988, Pennsylvania implemented an automatic driver’s license suspension for “minor’s law” offenses, which includes fake IDs and underage consumption or possession of alcohol. A first conviction triggers a 90 day driver’s license suspension, a second conviction triggers a one year suspension, and third or subsequent conviction triggers a two year suspension. I graduated from Penn State in 1994 and there are actually people my age who do not have a driver’s license due to underage drinking convictions! This is because every time they were caught driving under suspension, a year was added to their suspensions, and needing to drive to work, they were never able to pull themselves out of the quicksand, which started in their late teens.

Although the driver’s license suspensions have failed to curtail underage drinking in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett recently signed a bill into law, which increases the maximum fine for a first underage drinking conviction from $300 to $500, and increases the maximum fine for a second conviction to $1,000. All this while college sports television revenue is driven by beer commercials designed to appeal to that coveted 18-25 age demographic, which is just developing its brand preferences.

If taking away driving privileges has not curtailed underage drinking, then certainly increased fines will not either. When 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s vintage alumni return to Happy Valley, they no doubt notice younger versions of themselves doing exactly what they did in their youth. The only difference is the penalties are much more harsh and the police are no longer going to look the other way when they see a young person holding a cheap, domestic can of beer in the Beaver Stadium parking lot.

We need a rational approach to underage drinking, one which tries to reduce the harm triggered by alcohol, while acknowledging the reality that young people have always drunk and always will drink. I have spent years trying to think of the ideal solution, and I have come up with the following approach.
First of all, everyone over the age of 21 should have the right to legally drink. At least this part of my proposal should not be controversial outside of Utah. Now here is the innovative part of my plan, which might raise some eyebrows. Those over age 18, with a high school diploma, and those over 19 with a GED can acquire a “drinking license,” if they take a “responsible drinking course” and pass a written examination.

This approach is really not so radical when you think about it. In Pennsylvania, you must take and pass a hunter’s safety course before you can get a hunting license. Since this law was implemented, hunting accidents have declined considerably. Likewise, every state requires one to pass a test to obtain a driver’s license. Irresponsible shooting in the woods and careless driving endanger society, as does irresponsible drinking. Perhaps better alcohol education will lead to a decrease in irresponsible drinking, while recognizing the reality that young people are going to drink.

Now here is the teeth in my proposal. Anyone under 21 without a drinking license could still be prosecuted for underage drinking. This should provide incentive to young people to take the “responsible drinking course.” Those aged 18 to 21 convicted of DUI or placed on ARD for DUI, lose their drinking licenses. Likewise, a conviction for public drunkenness would trigger a drinking license suspension for some period of time. No exceptions. Draconian penalties for young drinkers have failed as a deterrent, but the carrot and stick approach of a “drinking license” for young people may at least go a long way towards reducing irresponsible drinking.

As appealing as the drinking license approach may be, it is pie in the sky, as any state lowering its drinking age from 21 would lose its federal highway money.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA who has represented numerous students charged with underage drinking and possession of fake IDs.

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