Pennsylvania law carries harsh penalties for underage drinking, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in every American generation have had at least one drink before reaching the age of 21. Although all states now have a drinking age of 21, the penalties and degree of law enforcement priority vary widely. Many young people and their parents are oblivious to just how harsh Pennsylvania's underage drinking laws are until they themselves are faced with an underage drinking citation.
Few people are aware that underage drinking in Pennsylvania carries a possible jail sentence of up to 90 days. Yes, you read that correctly. A judge could send you to jail for up to 90 days for drinking a beer if you are under 21. Rarely do judges impose such a sentence, unless there are severe aggravating circumstances and/ or the defendant has been in trouble many times before. Also, most people who receive jail time in an underage drinking case are usually also charged with felonies or misdemeanors or with additional summary offenses, such as disorderly conduct, criminal mischief or public drunkenness.
Most young people charged with underage drinking are not looking at jail time, but they are all looking at a possible driver's license suspension, even if the incident had absolutely nothing to do with driving. A first conviction carries a 90 day driver's license suspension, a second conviction carries a one year suspension, and a third or subsequent conviction carries a two year suspension. These suspensions are always served consecutively.
If you are caught driving under suspension following an underage drinking conviction, PennDoT additional one year suspension, and if you becomes a "habitual offender" by repeatedly driving under suspension, then a magisterial district judge could impose a jail sentence. People have to drive to get to work, so they often drive with suspended licenses. Thus, there are people in their thirties who still do not have a driver's license because they were caught drinking underage, and then continued to drive. Likewise, there are people who end up serving jail time well into adulthood, due to underage drinking convictions several decades ago, which set the stage for subsequent driving under suspension convictions. This is the inevitable outcome in a state with large rural expanses with no public transportation, coupled with the fact that cops in rural areas are far more likely to aggressively pursue underage drinkers than are cops in cities with real crimes to deal with.
Most young people are more worried about a driver's license suspension than fines, but the fines are not exactly trivial. Recently, the maximum fine for a first offense underage drinking conviction was raised to $500, while the maximum fine for a second or subsequent conviction is $1,000. To add insult to injury, additional court costs must be added to the fines.
If you are charged with underage drinking in Pennsylvania, it is not all doom and gloom. You may have defenses you could raise at trial, which you might not even be aware of until you talk to a criminal defense lawyer. Also, you may be eligible for a first time offender's program, which will allow you to have the charge dismissed. The magisterial district courts in each county handle underage drinking charges differently, so it is important to speak to a criminal defense lawyer from the county in which you were charged.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Underage-Drinking.shtml