Unconstitutional for South Carolina To Ban Alcohol Possession and Consumption by 18-to-20-Year-Olds?

S.C. Stats. §§ 63-19-2440 and -2450 generally ban under-21-year-olds from possessing or consuming alcoholic beverages. (There are some exceptions, including for consumption in religious ceremonies and in the minor’s parent’s home.)

But South Carolina Constitution, art. XVII, § 14 provides,

Every citizen who is eighteen years of age or older, not laboring under disabilities prescribed in this Constitution or otherwise established by law, shall be deemed sui juris and endowed with full legal rights and responsibilities, provided, that the General Assembly may restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons until age twenty-one.

Last year, the South Carolina Supreme Court used the provision to strike down a ban on handgun possession by 18-to-20-year-olds, reasoning as follows:

Respondent further argues that § 16-23-30 violates the state constitution because the age group of 18- to 20-year-olds is being treated differently than adults aged 21 and above….

Article XVII, § 14, specifically makes reference to the fact the General Assembly can restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons until age 21. By expressly allowing the regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the 18- to 20-year-old age group and not stating any other situation in which the General Assembly may restrict the rights of this age group, the state constitution precludes the General Assembly from prohibiting this age group’s possession of handguns. See Hodges v. Rainey, 341 S.C. 79, 533 S.E.2d 578 (2000) (the canon of construction “expressio unius est exclusio alterius” or “inclusio unius est exclusio alterius” holds that “to express or include one thing implies the exclusion of another, or of the alternative”); see also Strickland v. Strickland, 375 S.C. 76, 650 S.E.2d 465 (2007) (when interpreting a statute, the words must be given their plain and ordinary meaning without resorting to subtle or forced construction which limit or expand the statute’s operation).

So while the constitutional provision expressly allows bans on sale of alcoholic beverages to under-21-year-olds, it doesn’t authorize bans on possession (or for that matter bans on transfer other than by sale). Two magistrate judges have indeed so held, and the logic strikes me as quite right, given the text of the provision and the reasoning in the handgun possession decision (State v. Bolin).

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