CRS 44-3-901 is the Colorado law that makes it a misdemeanor to sell or give alcohol to people under 21. Penalties include 6 months to 18 months in jail, and/or $500 to $5,000 in fines. Merchants also risk losing their liquor license. Meanwhile, underage people who buy, obtain, or possess alcohol in public face 3 months to 12 months in jail, and/or $250 to $1,000 in fines.
In this article, our Denver criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is the legal drinking age in Colorado?
- 2. Can underage people buy alcohol?
- 3. Can adults give alcohol to underage people?
- 4. What are the penalties under CRS 44-2-901?
- 5. What are ways to fight the charges?
- 6. Can underage people serve alcohol in Colorado?
- 7. Related offenses
People must be at least 21 to drink alcohol in Colorado. That includes any kind of beer, liquor, wine, champagne, malts, or spirits. This law is meant to promote public health.1
No. CRS 44-3-901 forbids selling alcohol to people under 21. For example, the following merchants may not sell, offer, or serve alcohol to underage customers:
- Package stores
- Restaurants or cafes
- Bars, pubs, or taverns
- Other retail liquor stores or online retailers or wholesalers that sell alcohol
It does not matter whether the alcohol is in sealed containers or open containers (CRS 42–4–1305).
Merchants must verify proof of age through a valid photo ID, such as a driver's license. People who present a fraudulent ID to buy alcohol risk having the merchant confiscate it. The merchant can also detain them and call a police officer.2
No. It is a crime for adults to give or trade alcohol to people under 21. One exception is a parent or guardian can allow underage people to have alcohol in a private location. An example would be letting a child drink a sip of ceremonial wine during a holiday meal at home.
CRS 44-3-901 also makes it a crime for people to give their ID (such as a driver's license) to an underage person to buy alcohol with.3
Both adults and underage people face misdemeanor penalties for alcohol crimes:
Selling or giving alcohol to a person under 21
Knowingly letting a person under 21 use his/her ID to buy alcohol
People under 21 obtaining alcohol from a store or possessing alcohol in public
Class 2 misdemeanor:
For subsequent convictions, the court must impose at least $250 in fines. However, the court may allow the defendant to do community service in lieu of the fines.
(Defendants under 18 will be charged in juvenile court rather than criminal court.)4
Merchants who sell alcohol to underage people also risk losing their liquor license in the state of Colorado.5
Three potential defense strategies in CRS 44-3-901 cases include arguing that:
- The underage person stole the liquor. People are not criminally liable when an underage person steals their alcohol. If the defense attorney can show that the child took the alcohol from the defendant without permission, then the case should be dropped.
- The defendant was falsely accused. Perhaps angry parents falsely accused the defendant of giving alcohol to their child when in fact the child got it from somewhere else. As long as there is a reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt, the charge should be dismissed.
- The police performed an illegal search. In order to search for evidence, police need a warrant (or a lawful reason not to get one). If police found the alcohol through an illegal search, the defendant can ask the court to disregard (suppress) it as evidence. If the court agrees, the D.A. may be left with too weak a case to prosecute.
Defendants can still be liable for giving alcohol to underage people even if they believed they were of age. Ignorance of their age is not a defense, regardless of a convincing fake ID. In this way, CRS 44-3-901 is a strict liability crime.6
People 18 and older may serve alcohol in restaurants and bars as long as an adult 21 or older is supervising them.7
- Contributing to the delinquency of a minor (CRS 18-6-701): This offense includes giving people under 18 alcohol. As a class 4 felony, it carries 2 to 6 years in Colorado State Prison, and/or $2,000 to $500,000 in fines.
- Minor in possession of alcohol or marijuana (CRS 18-13-122): It is a petty offense for people under 21 to have alcohol or pot. A first offense carries $100 in fines plus a $25 surcharge, and a drug education class.
- Underage drinking and driving (UDD): CRS 42-4-1301(2)(d) prohibits drivers under 21 from driving with a BAC between .02% and .05%. A first violation is treated as a class A traffic infraction, carrying a fine of up to $150, a 3-month license suspension, 4 DMV points, up to 24 hours of useful public service, an alcohol/drug evaluation and treatment.
- Unlawful acts with a false ID (CRS 42-2-309): Using a fake ID is a class 3 misdemeanor. The penalties include a fine of between $50 and $750 and up to 6 months in jail.
In California? See our article on furnishing alcohol to a minor (California Business & Professions Code 25658.)
In Nevada? See our article on furnishing alcohol to a minor (NRS 202.055).
- Colorado Revised Statutes 44-3-901 CRS (formerly CRS 12-47-901).("It is unlawful for any person ... To buy any vinous or spirituous liquor from any person not licensed to sell at retail as provided by this article 3 except as otherwise provided in this article 3; ...To remove an alcohol beverage from a licensed premises where the liquor license for the licensed premises allows only on-premises consumption of alcohol beverages, except as permitted under subsection (1)(i)(VI) of this section or section 44-3-107 (2)...Notwithstanding subsection (1)(i)(I) of this section, it is not unlawful for a person who is at least twenty-one years of age to consume any alcohol beverages in any public place, other than a public right of way, where consumption of alcohol beverages has been specifically authorized by ordinance...")
- CRS 44-3-904.
- See Minh Le v. Colo. Dept. of Rev., 198 P.3d 1247 (Colo. App. 2008). Each merchant (or another such person) has licenses from the state licensing authority and a local licensing authority.
- Hershorn v. People, 108 Colo. 43, 113 P.2d 680 (1941).
- 1 CCR 47-913.