Alcohol and the law

Penalties in New York for Underage Drinking

In New York State it is against the law for persons under 21 to possess alcohol with the intention of consuming it. The attempt to purchase alcohol by presenting fake ID—even if you are not successful—can get you a $100 fine, required alcohol awareness training, and up to 30 community service hours, plus the suspension of your license for 90 days. (If you don't have your own license yet, you may have to postpone applying for it for the penalty period.)

Furthermore, New York State has ZERO TOLERANCE for underage drinkers who get behind the wheel with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .02% or higher. If you are pulled over and your Breathalyzer test results in a charge of DWAI (Driving While Ability Impaired) or DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), your license will be suspended at arraignment and remain so until the matter is resolved in the courts. (Important to note that if you refuse the Breathalyzer test, your license is immediately, automatically revoked for one year.)

If convicted, the penalties aren't pretty. (Say so long to your driving privileges for at least six months.) The attorney general explains it all for you at SafeNY. If you do get pulled over, you may find this Q&A on Zero Tolerance from Stop DWI New York will answer a lot of your questions.

One other thing—your parents' insurance rates will be adversely affected by their DWAI/DWI offspring, even if you are no longer driving as a result of a conviction. Their rates could increase by as much as 500%, ultimately putting the cost of that "one little drink" in the thousands of dollars, year after year.

There are certain exceptions to the prohibition against allowing underage people to drink alcohol in New York: Examples include where the tasting or swallowing of liquor is required in courses that are part of a student's curriculum (e.g. a wine tasting course in college), when the purchase is made as part of law enforcement activity, when the consumption is required for religious practice, and most notably, if parents choose to give their child liquor in the privacy of their home, this is not illegal, in moderate amounts. (More than "moderate" opens up the issue of child endangerment—a misdemeanor offense that can be escalated to a felony if alcohol is involved.)

New York Social Host Laws

Parents who serve alcohol to their children in their home need to understand they may serve ONLY their children. Social host laws in New York place criminal and civil liability on parents who allow underage drinking in their homes, even if they didn't supply the alcohol, even if the other parents gave their permission. Who really wants to be arrested in front of the whole neighborhood? Aside from being liable for any injury or damage that arises from the underage drinking, parents could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, so it's important to understand the social host laws fully.

For more information visit For Parents at Stop DWI New York and read their brochure on Teens and Alcohol—What Parents Need to Know.

Though intended for law enforcement personnel, the booklet A Practical Guide to Preventing and Dispersing Underage Drinking Parties can offer parents important perspective and set expectations for scofflaws. Seeing how other communities are handling this issue may inspire new strategies in Ossining.

The OCTC BUZZ button on this site links to OCTC's brochure, in English and Spanish, on NYS social host laws. Print some out and spread them around.

Providing Alcohol to Minors

So if you can't buy it yourself, and your parents aren't cool (i.e. they understand that drinking is bad for adolescent brain development), just get someone else to buy it for you, right? In New York State, whether you are over or under 21, if you supply a minor with alcohol (other than your own child in your own home), you have broken the law. Any bars, restaurants or liquor stores who serve/sell alcohol to someone who is underage could face criminal penalties, plus civil liability if the person becomes intoxicated and causes injuries or damage. The bar could lose its license if caught serving alcohol to underage patrons.

Drinking and Driving

We already reviewed the Zero Tolerance laws for underage drivers above. What about the rest of the people on the road? A driver in New York is considered to be ability impaired if his or her BAC is between .05% and .07%. Driving while intoxicated means a driver's BAC is .08% or higher. Aggravated driving while intoxicated indicates a BAC of .18% or higher. (See BAC and the Effects of Alcohol for more on that topic.) The New York Department of Motor Vehicles has published You and the Drinking Driving Laws to provide you with basic information on how to avoid the problem, what to do if you are pulled over by the police, and what can happen to you after that.

Leandra's Law, New York's Child Passenger Protection Act, has been expanded since its enactment in 2009 to provide for stiffer penalties for all alcohol-impaired drivers. Courts must now order all drivers convicted of misdemeanor and felony drunk driving charges – even first-time offenders and regardless of whether a child under 16 was in the vehicle at the time – to install and maintain ignition interlock devices on any vehicles they own or operate for at least six months at their own expense, in addition to any other terms of sentence. To find what those might be, use the DMV publication or read this Penalties Brochure from Stop DWI New York.

An estimated three of every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related traffic crash at some time in their lives. Will you be one of them? Will you be the victim? Or the driver?

If you're curious to know what an "ignition interlock device" is, click here for a thirty-second explanation.

The Minimum Legal Age

More than twenty years after all fifty states adopted 21 as the minimum drinking age under threat of having their federal highway funding cut back, the debate continues about whether this is the "right" age to begin consuming alcohol, and whether some accommodation should be made in the law to permit an introduction to alcohol under controlled circumstances before age 21. The American Medical Association gives background on how 21 came to be the magic number, citing the studies that have confirmed its effectiveness after two decades.

Consider this: Since 21 became the established minimum legal drinking age, the likelihood that a 15- to 20-year-old driver will be involved in a fatal crash has dropped by more than half. For more compelling statistics, visit We Don't Serve Teens.

Amnesty for Good Samaritans

It is hard to imagine, but true, that more accidental deaths in New York are due to an overdose of alcohol or drugs than are caused by traffic accidents. Think about that statistic in terms of how many cars are on the road every single day. Now think about how avoidable all those deaths from overdose are—27,000 nationally in 2007—if someone had just been there to call 911. Also hard to imagine is that most of the time, someone was there—most overdoses happen in someone's home, with other people present. But they didn't call 911—out of fear of being arrested or getting in trouble themselves.

Recently New York passed the Good Samaritan 911 law, which states, "A person who, in good faith, seeks health care for someone who is experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose or other life-threatening medical emergency shall not be charged or prosecuted for a controlled substance offense." In this state at least, you can't be punished for saving a life. So don't ever hesitate to dial 9-1-1. You can read more about New York's Good Samaritan law in this TIME magazine article.

You will find a comprehensive database of alcohol policy, searchable by legal topic or by state, at Alcohol Policy Information System, a project of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).