Arkansas Alcohol Laws

Posted by on March 15, 2013 in Blog, Criminal Law

Now that Spring Break is upon us, it might be a good time to take a look at some common criminal charges in Arkansas related to alcohol consumption.

Minor in Possession. In Arkansas it is “unlawful for any person under twenty-one” to “purchase or have in his or her possession any intoxicating liquor, wine, or beer.” Ark. Code Ann. §3-3-203.  While this seems obvious on its face, what is not so obvious, is that in Arkansas, merely having any of these substances in the body of a minor is deemed to be possession of these substances. Essentially you are possessing the alcohol by virtue of your stomach, blood stream, etc. being the container.

I talk to a lot of clients that believe, (unfortunately incorrectly), that because they were not physically holding the beverage at the time of the arrest or had stopped drinking some time before the police arrived, that the charge should be dismissed.  They are often very shocked when I show them the statute and caselaw that says otherwise.

The punishment for a charge of minor in possession of alcohol can range from a fine between one hundred and five hundred dollars; writing themes or essays for the court; probation; attendance at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel; taking an alcohol/drug assessment and possibly taking subsequent “awareness” classes; and the immediate suspension of your driver’s license.

All of this also often comes as a shock to many clients, who believe that they can just pay a fine and make the charge go away, their parents will never find out, etc.  Sadly, those days are over.  The license suspension alone for a first offense is sixty (60) days for the first offense and ranges up to a year for subsequent offenses.  I don’t know many high school or college students who don’t place a very high value on their driver’s license, not to mention the expense of figuring out how to get around without a license for two months, the costs of re-instating the license, etc.  If you or someone you care about has been charged with being a Minor In Possession, hiring an experienced attorney who can guide you through the legal and administrative process can be one of the wisest decisions you can make, as having a charge of public intoxication on your criminal history may impact a lot more than just your checking account when you realize you now have a criminal charge that will show up on any future background checks.

DWI/DUI. Arkansas law provides for both DWI- Driving While Intoxicated and DUI- Driving Under the Influence.  The law in this area frequently changes, as the Legislature continues to ratchet up the penalties and procedures, and therefore courts continue to interpret the law in varying ways.  Hiring an experienced attorney who stays on top of the latest developments is crucial, as DWI and DUI are two of the most complicated and often times harshly penalized crimes in the state.

Arkansas’ DWI law states that it “is unlawful…for any person who is intoxicated to operate or be in actual physical control of a motor vehicle.”  The definition of intoxicated in Arkansas is a blood alcohol concentration of eight-hundredths (.08).  This concentration can be proven by blood, urine, or breath analysis.  Refusal to submit to chemical testing can result in a 180 day suspension of license for a first offense, or an ignition interlock device.  This is technically a different charge than DWI in Arkansas, but is treated similarly in some regards, as far as the potential penalties go.

Penalties for DWI include the immediate surrender of driver’s license, fines, court costs, possible jail time, and likely installation and costs of an ignition interlock device for 180 days. There is often a MADD VIP class you must attended, as well as alcohol and driving education programs that you must attend and pay for.    Not to mention that your auto insurance will at a minimum dramatically increase your rates, if not cancel your coverage entirely.

It is important to note that in Arkansas, DWI cases proceed in two ways – the first is the obvious criminal charge that goes through the court system.  The second is the administrative portion, which proceeds strictly through Driver Control, and only affects the driving rights of the individual.  Procedurally, the two processes have little to do with each other from a purely legal standpoint, and the Driver Control portion is often handled way before the criminal proceedings get very far along.  But to the client, they are often viewed as one in the same, and unfortunately, I often see clients who have ignored the Driver Control portion, which has a very strict set of deadlines, leaving the client between a rock and a hard place.

Some other important things to note:

  • Arkansas courts have expanded “intoxicated” to also include being under the influence of controlled substances that would put an individual in an “intoxicated” state.  Thornton v. State, 317 Ark. 626 (1994).  This is commonly referred to as DWI-Drugs, and may include the testimony of a Drug Recognition Expert, which is a very hotly debated area of science and the law right now, especially if you have a prescription for the substance that has allegedly been ingested.
  • A motor vehicle is not limited to a car or truck; motor vehicles can include ATVs and riding lawn mowers. Fitch v. State, 313 Ark. 122 (1993).
  • Operation of the vehicle doesn’t need to be on a public road to fall within Arkansas statutes. Sanders v. States, 312 Ark. 11, (1993).
  • Any DWI offense occurring within five years of a prior offense is considered a subsequent offense and subject to higher legal penalties. Ark. Code Ann. §5-65-111.

By comparison, Arkansas’ DUI law states that it is “unlawful and punishable…for any underage person to operate or be in actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or similar intoxicant.” This charge includes a blood alcohol range from .02 to .079.  You can clearly see the lower standard and how this is very different from an “adult” DWI charge, as it takes much less alcohol in the individual’s system to trigger a DUI charge.

A DUI charge will cause the suspension of your driver’s license; beginning with a 90 day suspension for the first offense, and can reach up to revocation until the individual reaches 21 or a three year suspension, whichever is longer.  The fines associated can range from $100 to $2,000. Those convicted or pleading guilty can also be sentenced to community service,  and alcohol and driving education programs. Refusing to submit to a chemical test will result in the automatic 90 day suspension of the individual’s driver’s license.

Public Intoxication §5-71-212 of the Arkansas Code states that public intoxication can be charged when an individual appears “in a public place under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances and annoys a person in his vicinity or is likely to endanger himself or others.”  Arkansas courts have previously held that admitting to drinking two beverages at a private club and officer testimony of the “smell of alcohol; glassy, blurry, and watery eyes; and behavior” were sufficient to support a public intoxication charge.  Bailey v. State, 972 S.W. 2d 164 (1984). The statute also contains the charge of drinking in public other than a business licensed to sell alcohol for consumption. These locations may include:  any public place;  on any highway or street; using any public transportation; or waiting on any transportation in a public place.  In addition to restricting consumption of alcohol on a public street, Arkansas courts have held that merely being in a vehicle up to twenty five feet from a highway as being in public.  Berry v. City of Springdale, 381 S.W. 2d 745 (1984).

Both of these charges are very common in NWA, and are often viewed as low-level misdemeanors that don’t require hiring an attorney.  That may certainly be true in some cases, but please note that both of these charges are still considered Class C misdemeanors, which by law include a range of penalties such as up to 30 days jail time, $500 in fines, court costs, community service, and a charge that will show up on future background checks.  If you work in a profession where any of those could impact your employment, licensure, or financial future, I would urge you to contact an attorney that can assist you with either fighting the case, or at least minimizing the damage as best as possible.

Spring Break is a great time to cut loose, enjoy the nice weather and have a good time.  But please drink responsibly and don’t put yourself or others in danger.  If you do wind up at some point interacting with law enforcement, remain respectful at all times, they have a job (which is often dangerous) to do, and were once young and on spring break as well.  They understand, and more often than not, are only trying to make sure everyone stays safe.

Standard attorney disclaimer:  Nothing contained in this post is intended to be construed as legal advice.  Unless otherwise stated, no attorney-client relationship exists between the author and the reader.  Past performance should not create an expectation of future results.  You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.  While I invite you to contact my office and welcome your calls, letters and electronic mail, simply contacting my office does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Please do not send any confidential information to my office until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.