In the late 1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully lobbied members of Congress into passing legislation to require that in order for a state to continue receiving federal highway funding, they would need to raise their legal drinking age to at least 21. Needless to say, all 50 states ended up complying.
Under New Jersey law, at 18 years of age an individual is considered to have reached the age of majority with all the rights, responsibilities and liabilities that come with adulthood.
If someone 18-20 years old is charged with being a “Minor in Possession of Alcohol”, they are processed through the adult criminal justice system as opposed to the juvenile system because they are legally considered to be a fully competent adult.
The Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment requires that everyone be treated equally under state law, unless a rational basis can be established for doing otherwise.
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In a 1996 case (Manuel vs. State of Louisiana), the Louisiana State Supreme court ruled that, “statutes establishing the minimum drinking age at a level higher than the age of majority are not arbitrary because they substantially further the appropriate governmental purpose of improving highway safety, and thus are constitutional”.
Given this ruling, there does not seem to be any rational basis that would constitutionally allow states to prevent non-drivers over the age of majority from legally drinking.
Since one cannot possess both a driver’s license and non-driver ID card at the same time, it is quite easy for both alcohol vendors and law enforcement officers to differentiate between drivers and non-drivers.
Therefore in my opinion, New Jersey’s 21 drinking age is completely unenforceable against 18-20 year olds who do not drive.
I call upon NJ Attorney General Paula Dow to immediately issue a memo to all law enforcement agencies and prosecutors statewide making them aware of these facts, so that 18-20 year old non- drivers will no longer have to worry about their constitutional right to equal protection being violated.