Per NRS 202.020, Nevada law makes it a misdemeanor for people under 21 to buy, possess, or drink alcohol. The penalties for underage drinking are up to 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 in fines. Defendants under 18 face additional juvenile court penalties, including a driver’s license suspension.
The statute states that “[A] person under 21 years of age who, for any reason, possesses any alcoholic beverage in public is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Typical defenses to NRS 202.020 charges are:
- The alcohol did not belong to the defendant.
- The police found the alcohol through an illegal search.
- The defendant possessed the alcohol as part of a job.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss the following information:
- 1. Is it a crime for people under 21 to have alcohol in Nevada?
- 2. What are common defenses to underage alcohol possession?
- 3. What are the penalties under NRS 202.020?
- 4. Can the record be sealed?
- 5. What are related offenses?
Yes. It is against Nevada law for people under 21 to do either of the following:
- Purchase or consume alcohol anywhere it is sold; or
- Possess alcohol in public
But there are five exceptions where people under 21 may possess and/or consume alcohol:
- Possession or consumption for an established religious purpose. Such as during Sunday mass at church. Or during the Passover seder.
- Possession or consumption in the presence of: The person’s parent, spouse or legal guardian. And this person is at least 21.
- Possession or consumption with a doctor’s prescription (as with controlled substances).
- Possession in private clubs or private business establishments.
- Possession while in lawful employment by a licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer of alcoholic beverages. Such as a store clerk.1 (Not that bartenders and waiters who serve alcohol must be at least 21 in Nevada. And local governments have their own local laws regarding service and liquor stores. See our article, What is the legal age to serve alcohol in Nevada?)2
Therefore, the circumstances of an underage person’s possession of alcoholic beverages determine whether the behavior is illegal under state law.
Example: Sam is an eighteen-year-old UNLV college student. He goes home to spend New Year’s Eve with his parents. At midnight they toast in the new year with a glass of champagne. Later that night, Sam goes out with his friends to Sunset Park. They celebrate together by drinking beer. In this case, Sam did nothing illegal by drinking the champagne. His of-age parents were supervising. And they were in their own private residence. But Sam could be arrested for underage drinking in Sunset Park. That is a public place.
In the above example, it does not matter if Sam never gets inebriated. Nor does it matter if Sam was not the one who brought the alcohol to Sunset Park. Sam jointly possessed the alcohol with his friends.
1.1. Criminal versus Juvenile Court:
People under age 18 (“minors”) accused of alcohol possession in the state of Nevada are prosecuted in juvenile court. Not criminal court like adults 18 and older. And instead of being found guilty, juveniles are adjudged delinquent.
Three ways to fight NRS 202.020 charges are to argue the following:
- The alcohol did not belong to the defendant. The police may have been mistaken about whom the alcohol belonged to. Perhaps it belonged to someone else in the vicinity of the defendant. Perhaps someone else planted it near the defendant or in the defendant’s motor vehicle on purpose. As long as the prosecutor cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had a hand in buying, possessing or drinking alcohol while being underage, charges should not stand.
- The police found the alcohol through an illegal search. Law enforcement may conduct searches and seizures within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment. If the police step over the line – such as by failing to get a warrant when a warrant is necessary – it may be possible to get all the evidence found from that illegal search thrown out. For example, if an officer illegally searched a 20-year old’s car in Nevada and found alcohol, the defense attorney can file a motion to suppress asking the judge to disregard the alcohol as evidence. If the judge agrees, that could effectively leave the prosecution with an unwinnable case.
- Possessing alcohol was part of the defendant’s job. People 16 and older may handle closed alcohol containers as part of their job in Nevada food stores.
Example: Rudy is 18 and works at a Las Vegas grocery store. Part of his job is carrying wine, liquor, and spirits from the stock room to the shelves. A shopper sees him and calls a law enforcement officer to report that an underage person is handling alcohol. But Rudy should not face any charges since he is only doing his job and is not drinking.
It is not a defense to “minor alcohol possession” charges in Nevada if the defendant is from a country that allows underage drinking.
It is a misdemeanor in Nevada for a person under 21 to drink, buy, or possess alcohol. The punishment includes:
- Up to 6 months, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,0003
Juveniles under 18 accused of violating NRS 202.020 are typically prosecuted in juvenile court instead of criminal court. The juvenile penalties include:
- Up to 6 months in juvenile detention and/or a fine of up to $1,000;
- An alcohol evaluation to determine whether the juvenile is addicted;
- A rehab program (if the evaluation finds that the juvenile is an addict); and
- A driver’s license suspension of 9 months to 2 years4
Defendants convicted in Nevada criminal court of minor alcohol possession must wait one year after the case closes before petitioning the court for a record seal. But if the charge got dismissed, then they can pursue a seal immediately.5 Learn more about how to seal Nevada criminal records.
Defendants who were adjudged delinquent of minor drinking in Nevada automatically have their juvenile record sealed upon turning 21. Juvenile defendants may be able to get their records sealed earlier if all the following are true:
- Three years have passed since the defendant was adjudged delinquent of minor alcohol possession; and
- The defendant has not since been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanors involving moral turpitude; and
- The defendant has been rehabilitated.6
Learn more about sealing juvenile records in Nevada. Record seals may be necessary for entry into institutions of higher education.
Depending on the case, people charged with being a minor in possession may face additional charges as well:
- Underage DUI (NRS 484C.350, NRS 483.462, NRS 62E.640)
- Using a fake ID (NRS 205.460)
- Walking or driving with an open container (NRS 484B.150)
- Breaching the peace (NRS 203.010)
- Trespass (NRS 207.200)
- Loitering in a place where alcohol is served (NRS 202.030)
- Pretending to be 21 to obtain alcohol (NRS 202.040)
Adults can face charges for selling or furnishing alcohol to a person under 21 (NRS 202.055). This law does not apply to such person’s adult-aged parents, guardians or physicians.
Also learn more about Nevada public intoxication laws.
In California? Learn about minor alcohol possession laws (BP 25662).
In Colorado? Learn about minor in possession laws (CRS 18-13-122).
- NRS 202.020.
- See NRS 244.351; Las Vegas Municipal Code 6.50.490.
- NRS 202.020.
- NRS 62E.630; NRS 62E.620.
- NRS 179.245; NRS 179.255.
- NRS 62H.130; see State v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court Supreme Court of Nevada, 129 Nev. 492, 306 P.3d 369 (2013).