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Debate Over Legal Drinking Age in South Carolina Far From Over
In recent years, there has been a push in South Carolina to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18. This proposal has fueled an ongoing debate.

Under 21 Drinking Ban Challenged

In recent years, there has been a push in South Carolina to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.

In 2008, a bill was proposed in the South Carolina state legislature that would have lowered the drinking age to 18 for all military personnel. Wisconsin and Kentucky have considered passing similar legislation to lower the legal drinking age for military personnel to 18, while Missouri, South Dakota, Vermont and Minnesota have considered passing bills seeking to lower the legal drinking age for everyone to 18. So far, all of these efforts have been unsuccessful.

A group of university and college presidents have formed a surprising collation in favor of returning to an 18 year old drinking age. Citing concerns over the increase in binge drinking, as well as underage drinking on college campuses, the Amethyst Institute was created with the goal of opening up a national dialogue on the appropriate legal age for alcohol consumption. The Amethyst Institute has over 100 members, including Cleveland Sellers, President of Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina and Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University in neighboring Durham, North Carolina.

Binge drinking on college campuses has long been a concern for the leadership at South Carolina's colleges and universities. Some colleges, including Coastal Columbia University (CCU), have taken action to step-up enforcement of underage drinking laws by partnering with the local police to create a task force. But it seems that no matter what action is taken to combat underage drinking students continue to take their chances with the law.

Recent decisions by two magistrate judges as well as a Circuit Court judge in South Carolina which interpret the constitutionality of South Carolina Code § 63-19-2450, have added to the fervor in the state to change the drinking age.

While, South Carolina § 63-19-2450 declares it unlawful for a person who is eighteen, but less than twenty one to, "consume, or knowingly possess alcoholic liquors….:, as well as making the sales to minors a criminal offense, the South Carolina Constitution, specifically, Article XVII, 14: provides:

§ 14. Citizens deemed sui juris; restrictions as to sale of alcoholic beverages.  Every citizen who is eighteen years of age or older, not laboring under disabilities prescribed in this Constitution or otherwise established by law, shall be deemed suit juris and endowed with full legal rights and responsibilities, provided, that the General Assembly may restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons until age twenty-one.

This past July, a magistrate in Richland County held that  Section 63-19-250, which prohibits people ages 18-20 from possessing or consuming liquor was unconstitutional, finding that individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 may possess and consume, but not purchase alcohol. A little over a week later, another magistrate in Aiken County also ruled that the law prohibiting 18-20 year olds from consuming or possessing wine or beer was unconstitutional. 

Most recently, Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford upheld the statute as constitutional, ruling that the General Assembly clearly intended to ban possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages by people younger than 21. While these rulings are not binding, if appealed, a determination by the South Carolina Court of Appeals or Supreme Court will have broader implications for the rest of South Carolina.

Until a determination is made by the South Carolina Court of Appeals and/or South Carolina Supreme Court, students need to be aware of the state's restrictions on underage drinking and possession along with the penalties they face for violating these laws.

Current Underage Drinking Penalties

South Carolina has a zero tolerance law for drivers under age 21. This means anyone under the legal age limit who has blood alcohol content (BAC) as low as 0.02 can be charged with a DUI.

Drivers under the legal age limit convicted of their first DUI for a BAC of 0.02-0.08 can expect to lose their driver's license for 6 months. If they receive a second conviction within 5 years of the first conviction, they will lose their license for one year.

Underage drivers who have a BAC of 0.08 or higher face the same penalties as other drivers charged with a DUI. The severity of the penalties depends on the driver's BAC and may include anywhere from 2-60 days in jail and between $400-$1000 in fines in addition to any other court costs and fees. Drivers must also enter an alcohol treatment program. The amount of fines and jail time significantly increase with each subsequent DUI conviction.

Below, you will find information on some of the other penalties underage drinkers may face:

Purchase, possession or consumption of beer, wine or alcohol (§§63-19-2440, 63-19-2450)

  • Misdemeanor offense
  • $100-$200 fine
  • 30 days maximum in jail
  • Driver's license suspension for 120 days (1st offense)
  • Alcohol prevention education program

Alter driver's license or sell or issue false identification (§56-1-515(1))

  • Misdemeanor
  • $2500 maximum fine
  • 6 months maximum in jail
  • Driver's license suspension for 120 days (1st offense)

Use of another person's or altered driver's license (§56-1-515(2))

  • Misdemeanor
  •  $100 maximum fine
  • 30 days maximum in jail
  • Driver's license suspension for 120 days (1st offense)

False information about age (§61-4-60)

  • $100-$200 fine
  • 30 days maximum in jail
  • Driver's license suspension for 120 days (1st offense)

Open container law (§61-4-110)

  • Misdemeanor
  • $100 maximum fine
  • 30 days maximum in jail

Contact an Attorney to Defend Against Underage Drinking Charges

If you have been charged with an underage drinking-related offense, it is important to begin working with an underage drinking and possession attorney as soon as possible. Many young people fail to recognize the type of impact these charges can have on their future.

For example, a conviction for drunk driving can limit future job opportunities, create ineligibility for certain types of student financial aid, and restrict participation in school athletics. Most underage drinking violations, including possession of alcohol and using a fake id, also result in driver's license suspension. In addition, anyone convicted of DUI is required to obtain SR-22 insurance for 3 years following a conviction, insurance which on average costs an additional $300 - $500 per month.

By working with an underage drinking attorney, you may be able to limit the severity of the penalties you face and the lasting implications that a conviction creates. Despite the recent magistrate decisions, 21 is still the legal drinking age in South Carolina. While the drinking age may eventually be lowered to 18, until then, residents must abide by the current law. For more information on defending an arrest for underage drinking or driving, contact an underage drinking defense lawyer or law firm near you.

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