Staff editorial: A civil offense

In January, this page argued in favor of a lawsuit brought by several District college students claiming that a 1997 statute relegates underage drinking to a civil offense and not a criminal offense. While the outcome of this lawsuit is not yet certain, the judge presiding over the case recently issued an injunction prohibiting the arrest of students for underage drinking pending the trial’s outcome and possible action by the city council.

Arresting and prosecuting underage drinkers, rather than handing out civil fines, diverts precious police manpower and monetary resources to victimless crimes when the resources should be used to address more pressing issues. At issue in this case is only the interpretation of a 1997 statute, but it has highlighted the confusion surrounding the criminality of underage drinking in D.C., which the City Council will most likely clarify this month.

Continuing to waste resources on excessive penalties for underage drinking is incomprehensible given that D.C. still has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. Arrests for underage drinking do not deter violations, but rather unnecessarily blemish the records of young adults who would be better served by community service and a fine. The City Council should uphold the 1997 statute and clearly relegate underage drinking as a civil offense – allowing police to save the arrests for serious crimes.

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