Buying Alcohol for Minors

The California Supreme Court has clarified the state’s criminal law against buying alcohol for a minor by ruling that a defendant has the right to try to prove that he or she reasonably believed that the minor was of legal age.

The unanimous decision also says that the law doesn’t generally apply to a host of a private party where alcohol is served and the guests include minors. It prohibits a specific purchase of alcohol for a particular underage guest, the Supreme Court ruled.

The Court overturned the conviction of a man who had clear reason to believe that the minor to whom he provided alcohol was actually 22 years of age. Inexplicably, the lower court judge had said the defendant’s belief was “irrelevant.”

Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Mickle Werdegar emphasized that the move in modern law “is to require proof of some criminal intent or knowledge in order to secure a criminal conviction.” She cited a 1964 ruling that allowed a similar “reasonable belief” defense to a man charged with having illegal consensual sexual intercourse with a minor (statutory rape) who was three months short of her eighteenth birthday.


  • Egelko, Bob. Law narrows on minors, alcohol. Adults who buy for them gain defense. San Francisco Chronicle, August 14, 2004; The case is In re Jennings, S115009.