The D.C. City Council last month voted 11-1 in favor of an emergency bill that decriminalizes underage possession and consumption of alcohol by first-time offenders.
The legislation, which was passed quickly by the council before it went into August recess, will remain in effect until February or until a permanent bill is voted on.
As the law currently stands, repeat offenders can still be arrested and face criminal charges for underage drinking, but first-time violators can only be given fines and a citation. MPD officials said the absence of criminal penalties for some underage drinkers has led them to reduce their campaign against minor alcohol possession.
Last month’s emergency legislation came in response to a May decision by D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush to temporarily prevent Metropolitan Police from making underage drinking arrests while she hears a lawsuit filed against the city by dozens of students who had been arrested for alcohol possession. Lawyers for the city and the students are expected to argue the case for the next four or five months.
Officials from MPD and the D.C. Attorney General’s office voiced opposition to the injunction, saying a halt to all underage drinking arrests hampered the city’s efforts to enforce alcohol laws. The emergency legislation, passed July 13, overrides Bush’s decision and helps clarify the city’s underage drinking laws while addressing the suit’s allegations that D.C. laws are too harsh.
“It’s a citation with a fine attached – no probation, no community service, no jail time, no handcuffs, just an appearance in the equivalent of traffic court if you want to contest the citation,” said Carol Elder Bruce, a lawyer suing the city on behalf of the students.
Bruce said the emergency legislation was a major victory for her and the dozens of area students she represents. Bruce’s office has declined to disclose the students’ school affiliations but said that at least one attends GW.
“It was an enormous success for the young people and the plaintiffs in the case, and it stopped the attorney general dead in its tracks,” Bruce said.
Permanent underage drinking legislation could be voted on when the city council reconvenes in September and would then have to be approved by Congress. Bruce said that while she does not expect the final legislation to have major changes, “There is always a chance that it could be returned to a crime.”
MPD officials said the new bill leaves them unable to effectively deter underage drinking.
“We enforce where we can, but unfortunately our hands are tied, and I think it is going to have to take some catastrophe to make people realize the inadequacies of the current law,” said Lt. Patrick Burke, a traffic coordinator who heads up MPD’s efforts to reduce underage drinking.
In response to the new legislation, MPD will be stepping up its campaign against fake identification possession, Burke said. In a written statement, the attorney general’s office said it would also aggressively go after fake ID holders even though its power in other areas was undermined by City Council.
While some people suggested that D.C. would see an increase in underage drinking because of the less stringent laws, Bruce noted that bars and nightclubs could still lose their licenses for serving to minors.
“If liquor establishment owners serve to underage drinkers, they are risking their license to serve alcohol,” Bruce said. “So we may see a heightened alert to stop underage drinking by establishment owners.”
Burke said that since early summer, MPD has seen a decrease in alcohol violations, which he attributed to a decision by the department to reduce its enforcement efforts.
“We have cut back on a number of our enforcement initiatives aimed at stopping underage drinking,” he said.
Burke suggested that the City Council might be responsible for future alcohol-related incidents.
“I think you’re going to see a marked proliferation in the increases in drunk driving and alcohol-related fatalities … it’s about deterrence, and unless there is adequate deterrence, we’ve got our work cut out for us, and we may see tragedies because of legislative shortcomings.”
While MPD may be changing its approach to alcohol policies, University Police Chief Dolores Stafford said her department will continue to go after underage drinkers. Penalties underage students can face if they are found to be in possession of alcohol range from mandatory educational sessions to fines to expulsion from residence halls.
“Like before this legislation changed, almost all our underage drinking cases are referred to (Student Judicial Services),” Stafford wrote in an e-mail. “That has not changed and will not. We have the option of using the city’s system in making underage drinking instances, but in the majority of cases, it is a violation and it will be referred to SJS.”
She said a large part of her department’s efforts would revolve around informing students about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
“We want to continue to educate folks on the significance of alcohol,” she said. “We still have a large number of hospitalizations and infractions that are alcohol-related, so we’re not going to do anything differently because of the city’s new legislation.”