Students file suit over D.C. underage drinking policies

Several D.C. college students recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, claiming that Metropolitan Police unlawfully arrested them for underage drinking.

Carol Bruce, an attorney with the D.C. law office Tighe Patton Armstrong Teasdale, said MPD’s practice of arresting underage drinkers goes against a 1997 city statute that decriminalized underage consumption and possession of alcohol. The suit is filed on behalf of those arrested in the last six years.

“I thought I was obligated to stop these actions,” Bruce said.

Bruce is compiling a list of people under 21, mainly students, who have been arrested by MPD for underage drinking since 1997. The suit seeks to end the city’s policy of detaining underage drinkers and expunge the arrest and prosecution records of people who have been arrested.

Bruce also filed a preliminary injunction that would prevent MPD from arresting underage drinkers until the judge rules on the case.

A press release from the firm stated that it was representing students from GW and several other D.C. universities, but Bruce declined to release their names.

Peter Lavallee, spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel, which represents the District in court, declined to comment on the case. MPD officials also declined to comment.

In a December Washington City Paper article, Lavallee affirmed the city’s right to arrest underage drinkers, saying it was a “settled matter.”

Bruce said she began investigating the city’s drinking laws when she represented a female college student who was arrested at a D.C. bar.

“She was allegedly seen to take a sip out of someone’s glass,” Bruce said. “She was arrested by undercover agents, handcuffed and forced to stand outside for 30 minutes.”

For privacy reasons, the law firm declined to release the student’s name or identify the university she attends.

When Bruce was researching D.C. court documents for her client’s case, she came across a 1998 case, Cass v. District of Columbia, in which a Georgetown student was fined for underage drinking but not arrested.

The court found that D.C. legislators made underage drinking a civil offense when they amended city laws in 1997.

In an interview with The Hatchet in August, Lavallee said the Cass decision had no affect on current D.C. laws because the statute expired in 2002.

Despite Lavallee’s contention, a District judge, citing the Cass decision, expunged Bruce’s client’s arrest records in November.

Jonathan Willmott, a D.C. lawyer who has represented several students arrested for underage drinking, said he believes the suit is valid.

” I’m glad someone is finally doing this,” Willmott said.

” The suit definitely has bearing on the current situation,” he added. “The arrest of people for underage consumption is a violation of constitutional rights.”

The suit comes as the city, aided by a $1 million grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, conducts a crackdown on underage drinking.

Cynthia Simms, community resource officer for the D.C. Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration, which works closely with MPD to battle underage drinking, said undercover MPD officers check bar and restaurant patrons for IDs as part of the campaign.

“MPD has been checking IDs for years,” Simms said. “We are now making sure that our businesses are in compliance with the law.”

Last week, MPD arrested three students for underage drinking at Madhatter, a bar on 19th and M streets. A sophomore who was among those arrested said he would be interested in joining the suit.

“I am very pleased to hear that,” said the sophomore after being told about the suit. “I would definitely like to be a part of it.”

Bruce encouraged all GW students who have been arrested for underage drinking to contact her firm.

-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.