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Frequently Asked Questions about enforcement of underage drinking laws

October 29, 2008

The following is provided as an informational service to Ohio State students. It is not to be construed as legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice of counsel. Though every effort was made to ensure that it is factually correct, it is not a legal document and cannot be used in any law enforcement or court proceeding. Students should consult with a private attorney for more information or to obtain specific legal advice.

Frequently Asked Questions:

OBEYING THE LAW IS THE BEST WAY TO AVOID HAVING TO WORRY ABOUT THE ANSWERS TO ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS.

A review of pertinent Ohio laws.

Here's a brief summary:

In Ohio, these are first degree misdemeanors, for which you may be arrested:

  • Drinking, buying or possessing an alcoholic beverage if you are under 21 years of age. If you are under 21, it is illegal to drink alcohol on public and private property and you may not even carry a closed container of alcohol. These laws are commonly called "underage drinking" or "prohibitions."
  • Providing an alcoholic beverage to anyone under 21, whether you sell it to them or give it to them.
  • Using false identification to obtain alcoholic beverages.

Following is a minor misdemeanor, for which you can be issued a citation:

  • Having an open container of an alcoholic beverage in your possession while you are on public property, regardless of your age and whether or not you actually drink any of it. This is commonly called the "open container law."

Open containers of alcohol are not permitted in "public places." What is a public place?

The law does not specifically define what constitutes a public place, and a variety of facts and circumstances may be relevant to that determination. Streets, sidewalks, the strip of grass between the street and sidewalk are almost certain to be considered public places. Your yard, patio or porch may be a public place if you do not control access to it. If you allow anyone to enter, then it could be considered "public." If you party on your lawn and are not scrupulous about keeping outsiders away, your lawn may be considered a public place. Areas shared by more than one apartment or building are usually considered public. Inside your apartment or house, with the door shut, is usually a private place. If you would like more information regarding your specific facts, you should consult a private attorney.

Are police officers allowed to enter my yard or porch without my permission?

Usually, yes. This depends on a number of factors. Consult an attorney for more specific advice.

Are police officers allowed to enter my house without my permission or a warrant?

Sometimes, yes, they may. Some of the reasons they are permitted to enter are: you are allowing anyone to enter (open house party), they have a reasonable belief that someone is in danger inside (such as passed out from alcohol or involved in a fight) or that evidence of a crime may be destroyed, or you invite them in (whether or not you know they are police).

Must police officers identify themselves as police officers when they ask to enter my yard, porch or house? Do I have to ask them, or must they tell me outright?

It depends on the circumstances. If they are in uniform, it's clear. If they are undercover or plain clothes, they will rarely volunteer this information and they are not required to answer truthfully if you ask. However, it is both legal and sensible to refuse entry to your home to anyone you do not know. If they then say they are police officers, you should ask to see identification. If there is an immediate risk to the health or safety of an individual inside, or in certain other limited circumstances, the officer can and may go inside.

How can I tell if someone trying to enter my house is really a police officer in plain clothes and not an impersonator?

Ask to see identification and call their department to verify their status. This is a reasonable and sensible precaution that you should take before allowing a plain clothes officer into your home. It is unusual for a police agency to take you away from the scene in an unmarked vehicle, so be certain to verify the identity of the persons giving such an order before entering the vehicle.

Do I have to let them in?

It depends. For all the ins and outs of this issue, you really need to seek the advice of your own attorney. In general, if they can see illegal activity or someone in danger from the doorway or window, they may enter. A warrant is generally required to search the premises; however, there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement and an attorney can help you with particulars for your situation.

Am I required to show my ID to a police officer?

This is another complicated issue. For the most part, you are required to provide your name, address, and date of birth when asked. Be aware that there are exceptions that could affect your rights and you should consult with an attorney regarding this area of the law.

Which law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction in the campus area?

The general rule is that most on-campus law enforcement is handled by the Ohio State University Police Department and most off-campus law enforcement is handled by the Columbus Division of Police. However, there are many exceptions, especially during special events such as football game days. Other agencies that may be working on or off campus include the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, Ohio State Highway Patrol, and the Ohio Investigative Unit (formerly Liquor Control). To further complicate matters, some areas adjoining university property on the west are not in Columbus, but fall in the jurisdictions of the Clinton Township Police (Lennox Town Center is the major one) and the Upper Arlington Police (some places adjoining the Waterman Farm and West Campus).

It is true that it's legal to drink if your parents give permission?

Not exactly. Ohio law does permit parents, spouses over 21 and legal guardians to provide alcoholic beverages to minors. But the parent has to be present and supervising you at the time the beverage is consumed. It's not enough for your Mom to say it's OK with her if you drink. Among other things, she has to be right there with you when you drink. It has to be your parent, guardian or spouse-it can't be a friend's parent, etc.

Must police read me my rights (Miranda warning) upon arrest?

No. This is only required if you are going to be interrogated while in custody. If you are, for instance, taken into custody after being caught in the act of having alcohol while underage, there is generally no need to ask you questions and no need to read you your rights.

What should I do if I am arrested?

Do not resist. Do not argue or threaten. Do as you are told, be respectful and cooperative. If you have the opportunity to speak to a friend, you may want to ask them to call your parents (or not) or be prepared to bail you out.

What does the typical arrest process include?

It varies, but you might be handcuffed, put in a police car or van and driven to jail (Franklin County Jail in downtown Columbus). At the jail, the usual process is to take fingerprints and photographs and require you to strip to your underwear, be patted down and to put on a jail uniform before being put in a cell with other persons until you are bailed out or arraigned. You will be allowed to use a phone to call someone who can post bail. If you can't get bail posted, you will remain in jail overnight until an arraignment before a judge the next morning. You will be given a document called a "complaint" that states what you are being charged with, the name of the officer making the arrest and his/her agency, and the date you are to appear in court.

How long does it take between arrest and getting out of jail?

It varies a lot, depending on such factors as how busy the officers and jail staff are, how soon you can reach someone who can post bond, what time of day you are arrested, etc. Students have reported as little as four hours or as much as 14 hours.

How do I report a citizen's complaint about police or jail staff?

The arresting officer's name and agency will be on your complaint document. Each agency - Ohio State University Police, Columbus Police, Franklin County Sheriff, Ohio State Highway Patrol - has a department that handles citizen complaints. Call the appropriate agency's headquarters and ask to speak to a person who handles citizen complaints. The Franklin County Jail is operated by the Sheriff's office, so complaints about jail staff should be directed to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. Be aware that it is illegal to provide false information to the police.

If I am arrested for underage drinking, is this on my permanent record?

Maybe. There is a process called expungement that can "seal" your arrest record under certain circumstances; for example, if this is your one and only offense. It's not guaranteed to you, but is a possibility you can explore. Consult an attorney or the Franklin County Clerk of Courts office for more information.

Under what circumstances can I be held responsible for underage drinking violations by my roommates and/or their guests?

There is no simple answer to this question. The best action is to not have persons under 21 and alcohol in the same place. Certainly, if you buy alcohol for an underage person or give or sell alcohol to an underage person, you are committing a crime. If they help themselves to your stuff without your permission or drink in your presence, you might be liable and you might not, and there are too many variables and individual circumstances for us to advise you on that. If you are concerned about this, consulting an attorney regarding your rights and liabilities in this area is the best way to ensure that you have the information you need.