Judge orders halt to underage drinking arrests

Metropolitan Police officers have been temporarily prevented from arresting underage drinkers after a District judge last month ordered a halt to the practice.

The injunction means that underage drinking in the city has been temporarily deemed a civil offense, and MPD officers can only mete out punishments such as fines and community service to people violating D.C. alcohol laws.

Last month’s decision by the judge, Zoe Bush of the D.C. Superior Court, came in a civil case filed against the District by 40 college students, including some from GW.

The suit, which claims D.C. is ignoring a 1997 statute that decriminalized underage drinking in the city, seeks to put a permanent stop to putting underage drinkers in handcuffs and expunge the arrest records of those detained in the last seven years. It also seeks an undisclosed amount of monetary damages.

The injunction, handed down May 29, will likely hold until Bush issues a ruling on the case, which may not happen for five to six months, said Carol Elder Bruce, a lawyer representing the students. The judge will begin hearing the case June 11.

In an interview Thursday, Bruce said she was “delighted” by the injunction, which she said was indicative of how the judge would eventually rule.

“It’s a very good sign,” she said.

Bruce would not comment on how many GW students are suing

the city but said “there is more than one” and that the other students are from American, Catholic and Georgetown universities. In the lawsuit, none of the students are named, and some are dubbed “John Doe” and “Jane Doe.”

City officials would not comment on the injunction, citing pending litigation.

They did, however, issue a statement saying they believed the arrest of underage drinkers was permitted under D.C. law. But despite its position, the city will comply with the court’s injunction and temporarily refrain from arresting underage drinkers, said Terefah Coxum, spokesperson for the D.C. Attorney General’s office, formerly known as the Corporation Counsel.

In response to the injunction, city officials have asked the D.C. City Council to pass a bill that would clarify District law and make underage drinking a criminal offense. The council will begin hearings on the bill June 16.

The injunction has momentarily affected MPD’s efforts to curb underage drinking in the city’s bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

During the school year, MPD officers, often in plainclothes, routinely raid drinking establishments to search for underage drinkers. While the injunction does not affect the city’s fake ID laws, it prevents officers from arresting minors with drinks in their hands.

Lt. Patrick Burke, who oversees MPD’s underage drinking operations, could not be reached for comment last week. Officers in MPD’s Public Information Office directed all questions to the Attorney General’s office.

In a Hatchet interview last month, Burke said officers go to bars and clubs and usually arrest someone for underage drinking or possession of a fake ID.

“We just use our discretion,” he said. “If people are underage they have a tendency to try to be less blatant about it. A lot of times we’ll find people hiding in corners or chugging alcohol in the bathrooms.”

Since January, at least 12 GW students have been detained for underage drinking, according to arrest records from MPD’s 2nd and 3rd district headquarters. The city has prosecuted 143 people for underage drinking in 2004 and filed charges against 375 offenders in 2003.

The injunction will not hinder efforts by the D.C. Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration to stop liquor vendors from violating alcohol laws. The agency is in the process of sending minors into all D.C. liquor establishments to ensure they are not selling to minors.

“It’s not going to stop us from doing the efforts that we’re doing,” said Cynthia Simms, the agency’s community resource officer.

-Zach Ahmad and Ryan Holeywell

contributed to this report.

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