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Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor

Adults who persuade or help minors commit acts of juvenile delinquency may be charged with the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (or "CDM"). A minor is anyone under the age of majority, 18 in most states. Since possession of alcohol is an act of juvenile delinquency, for example, providing alcohol to minors would be an act of CDM in most cases. Colorado was the first to establish the crime in 1903 and all states now have such laws, even though most have carved out some exceptions.

An act of juvenile delinquency is basically a crime committed by a minor and handled outside of the criminal justice system. Definitions of delinquency and laws affecting juveniles may vary from state to state (see Juvenile Justice for more information).

This article focuses on the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, particularly the common act of providing alcohol to minors. For more information, see Underage DUI: Zero Tolerance Laws; MIP: A Minor in Possession; Social Host Liability; and additional articles in FindLaw’s Alcohol Crimes section.

CDM: Elements of the Crime

Every state makes it a crime for adults to aid a minor's act of delinquency. They differ but are generally similar in scope. For instance, most states will charge you with a misdemeanor if you offer to buy a case of beer for a teen or host a keg party attended by your teenage son and his friends. Some states, however, treat the crime as a felony in certain instances.

The elements of CDM generally include:

  • An adult (or another minor, in some states) committed an act or failed to perform a duty (sometimes regardless of intent).
  • This act or omission caused (or has the tendency to cause) a minor to become or remain:
    1. A dependent of the juvenile court; or
    2. A delinquent; or
    3. A habitual truant

Most laws use language such as “tending to cause delinquency.” This means the minor does not actually have to commit an act of delinquency for the adult to be charged for the crime. For example, your 14-year-old neighbor does not have to actually possess the case of beer you bought for him in order for you to be charged for CDM.

CDM Laws Vary by State

Some laws specifically state that only “parents, legal guardians, and others who have care of custody of a child” may be charged with CDM. But these jurisdictions also usually prosecute others, such coworkers or strangers, for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Additionally, the term “contributing” is very broadly defined by most statutes, leaving it open to interpretation by a jury or judge.

Different jurisdictions disagree over whether the behavior must actually lead to an act of delinquency (referred to in the “elements” section, above) and whether mens rea (a “guilty mind”) is required for a guilty verdict. Some states only require the intent to commit the act in question, regardless of whether the defendant knew the minor’s actual age. But others allow an affirmative defense based on lack of mens rea, such as being unaware of the minor’s age and thus not intending to commit the crime.

Examples of state CDM laws:

  • California (Cal. Pen. Code § 272): Includes acts that “tend to” cause delinquency; charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $2,500 and up to one year in jail.
  • Florida (Florida Statute 827.04): Charged as a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail; statute explicitly states that it is not necessary for the child to have actually committed an act of delinquency to be charged with CDM.
  • Ohio (Ohio Revised Code 2919.24): Law uses the phrase “unruly child” in reference to a juvenile delinquent. Statute explicitly states that each day of violation is prosecuted as a separate offense.

CDM vs. Providing Alcohol to Someone Underage

While those caught providing alcohol to a minor may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, they also may face a separate charge for providing alcohol to someone under the age of 21 (also referred to as a “minor,” but in the context of alcohol possession). It depends on the state and the case, but prosecutors often persuade the defendant to plead guilty to the lesser charge in exchange for dropping the more severe one. Still, prosecutors may be free to proceed with both charges.

Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor: Exceptions

It is not always a crime to provide a minor with alcohol in at least 40 states. But these exceptions are narrowly defined. The following exceptions to the minimum legal drinking age may be valid defenses to CDM charges:

  • Private premises with parental consent: For example, serving your teenage child a glass of wine at dinner (29 states, including New York and Texas).
  • Private premises without parental consent: For example, a minor helping herself to a can of beer while home alone (six states, including Louisiana and New Jersey).
  • Religious reasons: The most common example is drinking a sip of wine at church for ceremonial purposes (25 states, including Colorado and Illinois).
  • Medical purposes: Tinctures and some other medications may contain alcohol (16 states, including Arizona and Washington).
  • Government-related work: This may include participation in government research or working undercover (four states, including Michigan and Oregon).
  • Educational Purposes: For example, adding wine to a sauce while attending culinary school (seven states, including North Carolina and Vermont).
  • Premises selling alcohol, with parental approval: For example, a teenager has a drink with her parents at a restaurant (11 states, including Massachusetts and Nevada).

If you have specific questions about contributing to the delinquency of a minor or have been charged with the crime, consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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