Judge: State law barring underage drinking is unconstitutional - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

Judge: State law barring underage drinking is unconstitutional

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By Jack Kuenzie - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - If you're younger than 21 in South Carolina, you cannot buy alcohol. But what about having it in your possession or drinking it? 

A court ruling today suggests state law contains nothing that would make it illegal for many young people to own or use alcoholic beverages.

"This magistrate in Richland County has concluded that the statute that criminalizes possession and consumption is unconstitutional," says attorney Joe McCulloch.

In a ruling issued Monday morning, Richland Co. Magistrate Mel Maurer sided with McCulloch, acting on behalf of a 20-year-old client ticketed March 9th for possession.

McCulloch argues Article 17, Section 14 of the state constitution conditionally gives those 18 and over the "full legal rights and responsibilities" of all other adults, with one exception -- the General Assembly can restrict the sale of alcohol.

But that section of the constitution does not specifically address consumption or possession.

"This is a determination made by a well-regarded magistrate in Richland County. I think that if ten judges hear this argument, I believe that ten judges will find consistent with this ruling," says McCulloch.

The Fifth Circuit Solicitor's office and Richland County Sheriff's Department say the statute cited by the arresting officer on the ticket had been repealed, and later replaced with another that does outlaw consumption and possession.

McCulloch notes the change in his motion to dismiss the charge. He says Maurer later raised the issue as another potential problem for the state's case.

A spokeswoman for the solicitor says the decision will be appealed to a circuit court.

In a statement, McCulloch says the ruling "presents to the General Assembly and ultimately to the voters of South Carolina an opportunity to address the issue of under-21 access to alcoholic beverages in a thoughtful and deliberate way."

"The constitutional decision to allow 18 year olds a vast array of freedoms, including the ability to fight for our country, suggests that the privilege of alcohol consumption as well should be extended to our citizens who are 18 years old and above," McCulloch writes.

He says lawmakers, if they revisit the issue, should "look beyond criminalization and resist calls from the pressure groups opposed to alcohol to more productive solutions like education and counselors."

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