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Enabling the Consumption of Alcohol by a Minor is Not a Strict Liability Crime

In State v. Richland, 2015 VT 126 (September 18, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court reversed a conviction for enabling the consumption of alcohol by a minor due to improper jury instructions and remanded for a new trial.

Issue: Under 7 V.S.A. § 658(a)(2), it is a crime to “knowingly enable the consumption of [alcohol] by a person under the age of 21.” Defendant appealed his conviction under Section 658(a)(2), arguing that the trial court committed reversible error by instructing the jury that the defendant did not have to know the minor was under 21 years old, only that he was enabling the consumption of alcohol. Defendant raised other challenges that were not reached due to the Court’s holding on this issue.

Holding: The Court held that Section 658(a)(2) requires that the defendant have knowledge that the person who was enabled to consume alcohol was a minor. It applied a well-established rule of statutory construction, requiring that when a law defining an offense proscribes a level of culpability, such as knowledge, without distinguishing among the material elements, the level of culpability applies to all elements, unless a contrary purpose plainly appears. It did not find a contrary intent in the legislative history for Section 658(a)(2) sufficient to rebut the presumption against strict liability. It ruled that this error was not harmless, and remanded for a new trial.

Dissent: Justice Eaton dissented, arguing that the majority decision elevated a rule of statutory construction over legislative intent. He found that the legislative history and policies behind the law strongly suggested that the Legislature did not intend for “knowingly” to apply to the age of the person enabled.

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