Council bill could make underage drinking a criminal offense

The D.C. City Council will begin hearings next week on an emergency bill that would allow Metropolitan Police officers to once again make underage drinking arrests.

The hearings, which are set to begin July 13, come in response to a court-ordered injunction that has temporarily turned underage drinking into a civil offense, meaning MPD can only issue citations and fines to minors in possession of alcohol.

In May, D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush ordered a temporary halt to the arrests while she hears a class action lawsuit that claims the city has ignored a 1997 statute that decriminalized underage drinking. Dozens of area students, including some from GW, are plaintiffs in the case.

The emergency bill, which is needed because the council will go into recess in mid-July, would override the injunction and make underage alcohol possession a criminal offense until September. At that time, city lawmakers can opt to pass a permanent version of the bill.

The bill would be more lenient to first-time offenders. One of the legislation’s main provisions is a requirement that MPD officers issue a civil citation to first-time offenders instead of arresting them. There would also be no mention of the citation on a person’s arrest record.

A civil citation would mandate alcohol training sessions or community service for minors who have not been previously arrested for drinking. Before the injunction went into effect on May 23, MPD officers could arrest first-time offenders.

The bill seeks to re-empower MPD officers, who said their efforts to stop underage drinking have been hampered by the injunction. MPD officials would not say how the department has changed its strategy to combat underage drinking since the May injunction.

Lt. Patrick Burke, who oversees MPD’s campaign to curb underage drinking, could not be reached for comment. But in a city council hearing last month, Burke said the injunction has paralyzed their efforts to stop alcohol possession by minors.

“If I was a young person in Maryland or Virginia, I’d be here in D.C. trying to get a drink right now, because there’s nothing we can do about it,” Burke told the Council, as reported by The Washington Post. “We can’t enforce (the law) right now, so there is a free ride in the city.”

With an influx of young people in the D.C. area this summer, MPD will continue to go after underage drinkers, said Officer Kenneth Bryson of the department’s Public Information Office. MPD routinely conducts raids on popular bars and nightclubs and sends undercover officers into establishments where alcohol is served to check patrons’ IDs. Fake ID possession is illegal under District and federal law.

Area businesses said they welcome the police presence.

“There are more undercover cops now, but we respect that,” said Siem Bui, manager of the Froggy Bottom Pub, a popular student hangout on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“They stay on top of all the bars in the area,” said Henry Shields, a manager of Georgetown’s Third Edition bar. “Either way if they arrest someone or they don’t, it doesn’t really affect our business.”

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