Judges Say Prohibiting Adults Age 18-20 from Drinking Alcohol Violates South Carolina's State Constitution

Veteran Richland County, South Carolina, Magistrate Mel Maurer has ruled that the state law prohibiting adults ages 18 through 20 from possessing or consuming liquor is a violation of the South Carolina constitution.

Shortly thereafter, Aiken County, South Carolina, Chief Magistrate Rodger Edmonds ruled that law and a similar law outlawing the possession and consumption of beer and wine by adults aged 18-20 are in violation of the state's constitution.

The constitution of South Carolina asserts and guarantees that residents have the full rights of an adult at the age of eighteen, except that state lawmakers "may restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons until age twenty-one."

The constitution clearly grants legislators authority to restrict the sale of alcohol to those under the age of 21. However, it does not grant them the authority to prohibit the possession or consumption of alcohol by adults aged 18-20.

Even if the State Court of Appeals or the South Carolina supreme court upholds those rulings, federal highway funding would not be in jeopardy. That's because the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 only required states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21, not the consumption of alcohol.

The act does not require states to establish any minimum legal drinking age in order to be in compliance with the act and to continue receiving full federal highway funding.

In addition, it does not require states to have any penalty for illegally purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol. States could treat these as minor infractions similar to a parking violation and limit the penalty to a minimal fine of one dollar.

Exactly what is public consumption of alcohol? The term "public possession" is strictly defined by the federal act and it does not apply to possession for the following:

  • An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older
  • Medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution
  • In private clubs or establishments in the course of lawful employment by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer. 1

And, of course, possessing alcohol in a private home or other private location would not be prohibited under the federal mandate.

The title of the legislation itself (the National Minimum Age Drinking Act) is clearly misleading and a source of misunderstanding in that it clearly doesn't require states to prohibit alcohol consumption under the age of 21.

In addition, descriptions of the law contribute to the false belief that it does. For example, the assertion that "the legal age for alcohol in the USA is 21 years old" clearly leaves the false impression that the minimum legal drinking age for alcohol is 21 in all states.

In reality only seven states and the District of Columbia prohibit the consumption of alcohol by persons under the age of 21 with no exceptions or qualifications. 2 Yet all the other states receive their full federal highway finding -- and South Carolina will continue to do so even if it lowers its minimum legal drinking age to adults aged 18.

Sources:

  • Brundrett, Rick. Old enough to own a gun, old enough to drink, judges say. Miami Herald, August 4, 2009;
  • Kittle, Robert. News Channel 7, Spartanberg, South Carolina. August 4, 2009;
  • Khan, Aisha. WBTW, Grand Strand, South Carolina, August 3, 2009;
  • Laurer, Claudia. Myrtle Beach area watches drinking-age debate, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach), August 4, 2009.

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