Are you faking it? Students use phony IDs to buy alcohol and get into bars

According to the card tucked in his wallet, Joshua Stevens* is a 22-year-old living at 301 Woods Way in White Plains, N.Y. In reality, the GW junior is a native of Pennsylvania, has never been to White Plains and, most importantly, was born nearly two years after the date printed on his driver license.

Stevens is part of a sizable population of GW students who carry a fake ID – a phony driver’s license that lists the holder as older than 21, the legal drinking age.

Stevens said he prides himself in owning “a quality one, not one of those fake-looking (ones),” and, indeed, the casual observer would be pressed to tell the difference between his bogus license and a legitimate one. The card bears his mug shot, signature, the official seal of the State of New York, and, Stevens claims, it will pass through the verification scanners used at many bars and nightclubs.

“It gets me in pretty much anywhere,” Stevens said. “I’ve been using it all year, and I’ve never really had a problem.”

Like other GW students, Stevens purchased his fake ID as a way to spruce up his social life. Tired of spending countless Friday nights at movie theaters, the 19-year-old wanted to broaden his options. A well-connected roommate and $150 turned out to be all he needed to score an all access pass to the District’s nightlife.

“When you go out at this school and you’re not 21, there’s really not much to do,” Stevens said. “Even if you don’t want to drink, (a fake ID) gives you the opportunity to go to a lot of cool places. It’s a way to get out.”

If Stevens ever had any anxiety about using his false license, it seems to have all but vanished. With his fake ID he has made several purchases at area liquor stores, held back laughter as a friend’s legitimate driver’s license drew questioning while his went unchecked and even had a conversation with a police officer at a bar. And though his bogus ID may have raised an eyebrow or two, he’s never been outright caught.

“At the worst it gets taken, but usually they don’t want to even bother,” he said.

But several District police and government officials said the city is known for having some of the most strict fraudulent ID laws in the country.

First-time offenders will generally spend a few hours in jail, perform light community service and pay an average fine of $50. Maximum penalties carry prison sentences of up to 90 days and cost offenders $300 in fines. Metropolitan Police Lt. Patrick Burke, who oversees the city’s efforts to curb underage drinking, said enforcement is particularly strong in September, the first month of the school year. In September 2002 and 2003, more than 80 D.C. college students, many of whom carried fake IDs, were arrested for underage drinking.

“When students come back in the fall we want to send a strong message that we care about underage drinking,” Burke said. “At that time there are no finals to worry about, and everybody’s rowdy and ready to get going. We want to let them know they won’t get away with (using a fake ID).”

Burke said enforcement efforts have increased in recent years. Working with a $400,000 grant from the Justice Department, MPD employs a variety of tactics to crack down on fake ID use.

Common methods include stationing plainclothes officers in drinking establishments and sending minors into liquor stores to test a vendor’s carding policy.

The most direct form of compliance checks are raids in which officers enter a bar or club and individually ask people for identification. While they may not card everyone in the room, Burke said officers have no trouble picking out those who are underage. Last semester, at least 11 GW students were arrested for fake ID possession.

“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.”

Burke said owning a fake ID is a rite of passage for many college students, a campus norm that is as expected as it is illegal.

Cards generally cost between $50 and $250 depending on sophistication and tend to take on a common form around the city. New Jersey licenses are the most commonly produced but the most easily detected, and New York, Connecticut and Maryland are also popular templates.

While MPD has its own procedures for spotting fake IDs, alcohol vendors serve as their first line of detection.

Bartenders and store clerks are most often the ones judging whether a customer’s license came from the Department of Motor Vehicles or a dorm room printing press, and many said it is in their interest to make the right call. Establishments found to be selling to minors can face stiff fines or even have their liquor licenses revoked.

“We (check IDs) to keep the place in business,” said Todd Passey, chief of security at McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon at 2401 Pennsylvania Ave., a popular GW nightspot. “There are a lot of employees working at a bar like this. Stupid mistakes at the front door can cost a lot of people their livelihoods.”

McFadden’s requires patrons to be 21 years old to enter and is known around campus for its no-nonsense approach. Passey, who checks IDs at the entrance on a nightly basis, said he gets an average of five fakes each night. He said if he suspects a license to be illegitimate, he will quiz the cardholder on details about their address and hometown. Once he determines a card is phony he will confiscate it, and if an officer is present, he will refer the offender for arrest.

Vendors and enforcement officials said they view cracking down on fake IDs as a joint effort. D.C. recently began several approaches to help vendors spot phony cards, such as distributing ID checking guides and holding free training workshops.

Last spring, police conducted a series of mock compliance checks that carried no actual penalties but sent a warning to those in violation. Officials said their efforts appear to be working.

“With the training we do and the compliance checks as well, we’re actually noticing a decline from all of our establishments,” said Cynthia Simms, community resource officer for the city’s Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration. “They’re more not selling than selling.”

Police and city officials acknowledged that it is difficult to monitor whether fake ID use among college students is increasing or decreasing but expressed confidence that their efforts serve as a deterrent. Some students interviewed agreed, while others, such as Stevens, said the perks of a fake ID are well worth the cost.

“It’s paid itself back already,” said Stevens, who will turn 21 next January. “Even though I only needed it for like a year, this year would have definitely sucked without it.”

*This student spoke on the condition that his real last name not be used.

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