Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Legal fallout for underage drinkers

Enforcement in University, town
By: Andrew Dunn, Daily Tar Heel, Features Editor
Media Credit: Daily Tar Heel / Allie Mullin

Consequences for underage drinking in the residence halls might be as light as a written warning. Being caught by the Chapel Hill Police Department or the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement means a trip to the courthouse, along with fines and the possibility of alcohol education classes.
For the interconnected web of law enforcement agencies that patrol campus, the fact that UNC students drink under age is a given.
The path such cases take through the legal system is a testament to how widespread the issue is.
The housing department, the Department of Public Safety, Chapel Hill police and Alcohol Law Enforcement all cite students for drinking violations on or near campus.
In most cases, the consequence will amount to a penalty ranging from only a verbal warning to a 15-hour alcohol education class.
Still, the repercussions for the busted drinker vary widely depending on who does the busting.

On-campus quaffing
For the hundreds of teenage drinkers who populate South Campus dorms, trouble begins with a knock on the door.
The resident advisers could be investigating a loud noise complaint, or they could have spied a liquor bottle though a cracked door.
Though students of legal age can drink in their rooms, alcohol is prohibited from common areas and in quantities suitable for more than one person, regardless of the owner.
The RA will immediately ask for the One Card of everyone in the room, and the alcohol will have to be poured out. If the drinkers follow those directions, the incident could end right there.
The dorm's community director also reserves the right to issue a written warning or mandate an alcohol class. If the violators are not cooperative, DPS officers will be called in.
Randy Young, DPS spokesman, said most of the problems with underage drinking stem from downtown excursions and house parties, not the residence halls.
"Underage drinking presents the biggest problem at large-scale events and out in public," Young said. "We're not going to go room to room in the dorms."
And UNC's Honor Court, though alerted to underage drinking, primarily deals with charges of disorderly conduct and driving while intoxicated, Deputy Student Attorney General Andrew Pham said.
"We can't realistically look at every underage possession charge," Pham said. "The University has a concurrent process that takes care of that."
That process usually just requires the offender to take an alcohol education class through Campus Health Services, according to the Dean of Students' office policy.

Out on the town
Drinkers will find the town of Chapel Hill less forgiving if its officers are making the bust.
Citations from the Chapel Hill Police Department or N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement will land the drinker in the courthouse.
On one Tuesday each month, 20 to 40 UNC students and town residents file into the Chapel Hill courthouse, alcohol citations in hand.
But for most of the offenders, a quick visit with an assistant district attorney will be the furthest they venture into the legal system.
"Our first move is not toward a purely punitive action but an educational one," Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman said. "It doesn't mean we don't take it seriously."
For first-time offenders, the district attorney's office will offer what is known as deferred prosecution.
Nieman said most choose that path, which offers a lighter sentence and dismissal of charges that can later be expunged.
Offenders must pay about $200 in court costs and sign a statement that says they "freely admit guilt" and agree to complete several measures within three months:
  • Stay enrolled in school or employed full time.
  • Don't commit another offense.
  • Take a 15-hour alcohol education class that costs $150.
Technically, an underage drinker could face 60 days in jail, a sentence reserved for severe offenders who decide to plead not guilty and fight through a trial.
"It's not the majority of cases, but it can happen," Nieman said. "The point is, no matter what the charge, the assumption is innocent until proven guilty."

Underage drinking laws (as of Dec. 1, 2006):
  • Underage drinkers risk a possession citation even if they weren't caught holding an alcoholic beverage.
  • If a police officer suspects intoxication, he can require the person to take a blood alcohol content test, and if that person has alcohol in his system, he is legally "in possession."
  • A person who refuses will automatically be charged with possession.
  • If a possession citation is issued, the police officer - either a member of the Chapel Hill Police Department or UNC's Department of Public Safety - also will refer the student to UNC.

Assistant Features Editor Nate Hewitt contributed reporting.
Contact the Features Editor at features@unc.edu.