In response to a D.C. Superior Court injunction restricting Metropolitan Police’s ability to arrest underage drinkers, the City Council passed an emergency statute decriminalizing underage alcohol possession on the first offense. Given the objections MPD is raising – claiming its ability to crackdown on underage drinking will be hindered by the law – it might be tempting for underage students to declare a victory and feel invincible at bars. Students however, should be more skeptical.
The emergency legislation, which should become permanent when the Council reconvenes and passes a new bill later this year, represents a significant and creative compromise to the underage drinking situation. It is important that the city recognizes how illogical it is to handcuff, arrest and detain students caught merely for having a beer in his or her hand. While the bill does give students a relative free pass on the first offense, if a student is caught subsequently, they can still be subject to arrest. This balance should be very effective; allowing a student to make a mistake, while still deterring future drinking with the threat of harsher penalties.
Some students might see the new law as an opportunity to go binge drinking at bars without fear of consequences. However, the new law actually has the potential to initiate an even stronger crackdown on underage drinking. First, writing citations, as compared with the time and paperwork required to arrest someone, is an easy process. Given this, if cops were to show up to a party, instead of telling everyone to leave as an alternative to arresting them, MPD could simply line up everyone and write tickets. Additionally, having a fake ID is not protected under the emergency bill from first-offense arrests. Instead of merely busting students for possession of alcohol, MPD might be stricter with IDs, potentially increasing arrests.
The new underage drinking statute represents a compromise that balances student interests with the District’s. However, it is important that students understand it does not represent an opportunity to drink without consequence.