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Can the State Legislature Lower the Legal Drinking Age in Wisconsin?

 Posted on December 05, 2017 in DUI / OWI

legal drinking age, Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer, Wisconsin lawmakers, lower legal drinking age, alcohol consumptionBy: Attorney Steven McGaver and Law Clerk Kenneth Baker

Some Wisconsin lawmakers recently announced a proposal to lower the legal drinking age to 19 years old. This proposal has one significant condition: federal highway funding cannot be withheld from the state.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA). The act created a uniform age for the legal consumption of alcohol at 21. If states refused to raise their legal drinking age, the Department of Transportation would withhold federal highway funding. Eventually, all 50 states passed legislation to raise the drinking age to 21, including Wisconsin on September 1st, 1986.

Soon after the passing of the NMDAA, its constitutionality was called into question. The United States Supreme Court addressed the matter in South Dakota v. Dole, which determined “to what extent does Congress have the power to withhold federal funding from the states.” The Court ultimately upheld the NMDAA and found that Congress can withhold federal funds from the states if it meets five requirements. The first is that the funding must promote "the general welfare." Second, the condition [placed upon the states] must be unambiguous. Third, the condition should relate "to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs." Fourth, the condition imposed on the states must not, in itself, be unconstitutional. And finally, the condition must not be coercive. If congress could pass this five part test, it could withhold federal funding to the states.

With the constitutionality of the NMDAA upheld by the Supreme Court, the legal drinking age in the United States has remained at 21 for more than three decades. The recently proposed legislation in the Wisconsin Assembly seeking to lower Wisconsin’s legal drinking age back to 19 raises interesting questions of federalism and revisits the extent to which Congress can withhold federal funds from the states.

One of the bill’s supporters, Representative Adam Jarchow, stated that his rationale for attempting to lower the drinking age is essentially, if you can serve your country, you should be able to be served a beer. Economically speaking, Jarchow believes that state and local enforcement are spending far too much tax-payer money enforcing the restrictions on underage drinking. Mayor Paul Soglin of Madison believes that this money could be better used to prevent alcoholism and fund rehab centers.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a frequent recipient of the dubious honor of being one of the top party schools in the country. Additionally, Wisconsin is a state whose population has been recognized as some of the heaviest drinkers in the country. Jarchow argues that by lowering the drinking age to 19, teenagers will be less likely to binge drink. College campuses across the United States have faced a series of alcohol related deaths that is unmatched on the global scale. Many argue that this phenomenon is attributed to the current prohibition on teenage drinking in the United States. Contrast that with European countries that have less rigid age restrictions on drinking, and you’ll find fewer instances of binge drinking caused deaths.

It remains to be seen whether or not Jarchow can actually get a bill across the finish line and lower the drinking age (while still managing to keep federal highway funding). If this attempt is successful, it would surely cause other states to take notice.

One group in staunch opposition of the bill is the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). By the legislation’s very nature, it will increase the number of individuals who can legally drink by the thousands. If the bill becomes law, it will likely lead to more people frequenting bars and, eventually, driving home from those bars. MADD warns that any reduction in the drinking age will drastically increase the number of drunk driving accidents and alcohol related deaths. Moreover, MADD is concerned because teenagers are the most likely demographic to get into an automobile accident and throwing alcohol into the mix will only increase the frequency of accidents.

It remains to be seen how Jarchow will “negotiate” with the U.S. Department of Transportation, as he claims he will do. Allowing a state to lower the drinking age while maintaining federal highway dollars seems to be in direct opposition of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Jarchow’s bill is still being circulated, and his uphill battle is somewhat unlikely to gain much traction due to opposition by community groups (including MADD) and the current state of federal law.

If you would like to speak with a knowledgeable Milwaukee criminal defense attorney, contact us today at 414-271-1440 to schedule a consultation. 

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