No New Hampshire State Law on Underage Drinking and Intoxication

by John Finn | 7/23/96 5:00am

To the Editor:

I was glad to see Rich Akerboom's letter about Tubestock in the Dartmouth, since the Boomer and his friends were, I believe, the ones who started Tubestock, now one of the Upper Valley's coolest yearly events.

However, I was a little dismayed to see Mr. Akerboom mention Vermont and New Hampshire laws on "underage drinking and public intoxication", since there ain't no such animal.

While Dartmouth has a regulation prohibiting underage drinking, neither Vermont nor New Hampshire has any such law.

The relevant New Hampshire statue is NHRSA (NH Revised Statutes Annotated) 179:10, "Unlawful Possession" (of alcoholic beverages by those under 21). There have been attempts in recent years in the New Hampshire Legislature to expand the scope of 179:10 so as to prohibit consumption as well, but these have been overwhelmingly voted down.

The only relevant Vermont statute is VSA Title 7, paragraph 657, "Minors misrepresenting age or procuring or possessing liquors; alcohol and driving education."

Attorney Stephen Borofsky of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union came to Hanover in the fall of 1994 to represent Dartmouth students and others under 21 who maintained that they had been falsely arrested by Hanover Police, who seemed to be enforcing College regulations instead of New Hampshire laws. The NHCLU, the town and the College reached an agreement that ended arrests of underage drinkers on the evidence of consumption alone.

Dartmouth also has a regulation prohibiting public intoxication, but both New Hampshire and Vermont have statues (NHRSA 172-B:4, VSA Title 13, paragraph 1029), identically worded, which are very explicit in insisting that "No political subdivision of the state may adopt or enforce an ordinance or bylaw having the force of law that includes being found in an intoxicated condition as one of the elements of the offense giving rise to a criminal or civil penalty. No political subdivision may interpret or apply any law of general application to circumvent this provision." That is as far removed as possible from having any law against public intoxication.

Dartmouth students, faculty and administrators, Upper Valley residents, and indeed Americans in general seem extremely and persistently misinformed about alcohol laws, thanks largely to erroneous and exaggerated reporting in all the major media. Other examples are that

  • Neither New Hampshire nor Vermont has a "drunk driving" or "driving while intoxicated" law; rather, both prohibit driving under the influence (DUI), which is quite a different matter.

  • Neither state defines "legally intoxicated" as having a BAC exceeding .08 (the level which constitutes DUI); indeed, in neither does the legal definition of intoxication even mention BAC.

I wonder whether the so commonly exaggerated perceptions of alcohol laws reflect a willingness of the American public that our government and laws act increasingly as Big Stepfather, and punish us -- for our own good, of course -- for all manner of "naughty" personal behavior.