The average student turns 21 during their junior year of university, leaving a large majority of freshman, sophomores, and juniors under the legal US drinking age.
People ages 12 to 20 years drink 11% of total alcohol consumed in the United States even though it is illegal under the age of 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also said that more than 90% of this alcohol consumed by minors is in the form of binge drinks.
University of Georgia Chief of Police Jimmy Williamson said in an interview with the Red & Black that he is noticing rising blood alcohol content levels in students being arrested.
“The alcohol levels that we’re seeing now are much greater and we are noticing that versus five, seven years ago, we’re having to involve EMS a little more than we used to,” Williamson told the Red & Black. “We’re seeing in the 0.30s more than we ever have.”
Downtown Athens is filled with endless venues and social opportunities, many of which involve alcohol. How do police enforce drinking laws when nearly half of the UGA student population is underage?
The Athens-Clarke County Police have many divisions within their department, according to their website. The ACCPD website said the Downtown Operations Unit is a part of the Uniform Division which “consists of the men and women who patrol Athens-Clarke County and meet the public on a regular basis.”
Lieutenant Gary Epps of the ACCPD Downtown Operations Unit said their purpose is to “provide the safest environment possible for what is considered the entertainment district for Athens-Clarke County,” especially when the majority of underage arrests are made in the downtown area, according to Lt. Epps.
“The Athens-Clarke County Police Department is fully aware of the amount of underage drinking that occurs throughout our community,” said Lt. Epps. “On any given night, the officers may be outnumbered 1000 to 1. We rely heavily on officer presence and strong enforcement of laws [and] ordinances to accomplish our order maintenance mandate.”
Although law enforcers may occasionally be outnumbered, their presence in the downtown area imposes a lasting impact on those drinking underage.
“While a strong enforcement stance may not prevent underage drinking, it certainly helps curb behaviors associated with the consumption of alcohol, which is most often the catalyst for other risky behaviors that lead to victimization,” Lt. Epps said. “The fear of being arrested seems to have a calming effect for some.”
Many underage drinkers agree with Lieutenant Epps. Underage Sophomore in Athens said the police presence in the downtown area impacts his behavior when drinking.
“No matter how much I drink, I see the cops on the corner and I sober up instantly,” Sophomore said. “I know that I can’t draw attention to myself for fear of being arrested.”
Lt. Epps said the “vast majority of underage arrests are made only after attention is drawn to the violator for other observed behavior.” He said violations range from open containers, urinating in public, and getting turned down from bars with a fake ID.
Bar A’s Manager agreed to an interview on the condition that he, his workers, and his bar remain unidentified. Manager said that underage drinkers are many times caught for offenses such as dress code violation before getting in trouble for being under 21.
“I myself was denied once going out to [a bar downtown] for having my hat on backwards,” Bar A’s Manager said. “I think things like that are what draw attention to a lot of these underage drinkers.”
Veteran Bartender at Bar A said she gauges potential underage drinkers through both their demeanor and conversation.
“One way I can tell who might be underage is by the way they act and talk about alcohol,” Bartender said. “I’ve denied people at the bar before if [they] look too drunk. I’ve told them ‘I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable serving you.’ It’s a little awkward sometimes, but I’m just trying to help them.”
Former Doorman at Bar B said his responsibility was to monitor the venue’s entrance and allow people of age into the bar.
“Most of the time, I turned people away for expired ID’s,” Doorman said. “It was a common indication of kids trying to use fakes.”
Drinking manifests common behaviors in underage offenders, according to Lieutenant Epps. He said that conduct ranges from “fighting [or] boisterous behavior to overindulgence resulting in situations requiring immediate medical attention.”
Heavy intoxication “increases the chances of a person becoming a victim of a crime,” according to Lt. Epps. Youths who drink underage are more likely to experience fighting, physical and sexual assault, unintentional injuries, and abuse of other drugs, according to the CDC.
The names of people interviewed and bars visited have been changed with their best interest in mind.
A University of Georgia student, age 18, nervously stood in front of the municipal court judge’s bench with a host of peers. The student had been arrested for the first time and charged with minor in possion a month prior. Others surrounding the judge’s bench shared similar experiences. Now, the first time offenders were all being placed on the Athens-Clarke County pretrial diversion program.
In pretrial diversion, first time offenders under the age of 21 are given the opportunity to have the charges against them dropped after paying fees and completing a meticulous checklist of requirements. Pretrial began to be strictly enforced in 2008 when the government took away control of the probation progams from private sectors.
“The pretrial program is a way for students to avoid a record with consequences through fines and community service,” said Eric Eberhardt, a partner at the Eberhardt & Hale, L.L.P. law firm in Athens. The rigorous program is expensive and time consuming, but it does produce a long term benefit for both the participants and the community.
The student, who entered pretrial diversion, faces costs of approximately $600 minium for completing the program. The fee to enter pretrial is around $300. The student will then pay $30 per month probation fee. An alcohol and drug awareness course is a requirement of the program and costs $115 through the university health center.
Many participants of the program and students are under the impression the Athens-Clarke County government uses the program as a method of exhorting money from first time offenders.
“I could’t believe how expensive it was to go through the probation process. I have had friends receive tickets for minor in possession that cost half of what I paid. I think this is just how the poorest county in Georgia makes its money,” said an anonymous student, who completed the pretrial program.
Athens-Clarke Auditor John Wolf completed an audit report on the program which showed this popular belief to be untrue. The probation program collected $922,000 in total fees last year, according to the audit. The program is government-run and required $804,000 to run leaving a $116,000 profit for the general county fund. That profit is equal to only about two percent of the county’s revenue. Superior Court Judge David Sweat even told commissioners the program should not be a revenue generator for the local government at a May 2009 budget hearing, reported the Athens Banner-Herald.
Hours of community service and probation meetings are another aspect of the pretrial program. The student must donate time to working for a specific charity or organization that is recommended and approved by the court system. The community service projects include volunteering with the homeless and animal shelters or beautifying public areas such as parks and highways. The student will also meet monthly with a probation officer to report the progress in the pretrial program. The student could be subjected to random drug testing during these monthly meetings. The student must also follow the strict rules of probation which include avoiding venues which sell alcohol and keeping out of legal trouble during the probation period. Failure to follow these guidelines result in removal from the program, and the student would again face charges.
The number of community service hours completed by probationers has more than doubled since 2008 when the government began running the probation program, according to the audit. The percentage of people completing the program has also increased from 70 to 90 percent.
“Certainly, with the large number of cases we have, they are handling it beautifully,” said Clarke County Solicitor C.R. Chisholm, who prosecutes misdemeanors. “We are seeing increased compliance and increased accountability on the part of the probationers.”
If the student completes the program, they have the charges dropped. The arrest can also be expunged off the student’s record in a few years at the age of 21 as long as the student does not get into trouble with the court again.
“Pretrial gives students the ability to avoid consequences that could keep them from getting a job or a chance at other future opportunities,” said Eberhardt.
So far, the rehabilitation pretrial program of the court system seems to benefit both probationers and the community. “Most people complete it and most people we don’t end up seeing again. We’re not trying to get the conviction as much as trying to change the behavior,” the Solicitor General told the Red & Black.
“It is a relief not to have one mistake hanging over my head for the rest of my life,” said the anonymous student, who went through pretrial. “Although the program was a pain, I am happy to have the incident behind me and a clean record.”
By Zack Taylor
For some students, drinking is a fun and relaxing activity. For others it is a dangerous risky endeavor.
Every year the University of Georgia Police Force arrests hundreds of underage drinkers.
While it may be the common thought among students that police are out to catch them for drinking underage, University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson has a different insight.
“Typically anytime a student any contact with the police is when they over consume,” Williamson said.
“It’s then that students will have poor decision making or become a victim and police will get involved.”
Williamson said that when he asked is asked who complains most about student behavior the answer shocks people.
“What happens is [students] over consume, they do something silly and other students call in and complain.” Williamson said. “If we find they’re drinking and under 21 there are going to be arrests.”
There is a misconception about underage drinking that Williamson addresses.
“The law doesn’t say you have to be drunk, the law is about possession.” Williamson said. “If you have one drink in the hand and the other in your body, that’s possession under Georgia law.”
Williamson said that the simple act of an underage individual just holding a friend’s beverage can constitute possession, however police are at liberty to use discretion.
“If you explain to the officer that you are just holding it and the officer doesn’t smell any beer on you, then he’ll probably cut you some slack,” Williamson said.
A student arrested for underage possession is not only directly taken to the Athens-Clarke County police department where they are charged, but also is punished by the University for a Code of Conduct violation.
According to the University code of conduct, underage possession of alcohol is in violation of the Code of Conduct.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act gave University the authority to contact the parents of a student who has been charged with alcohol possession.
However, this measure is completely optional and is at the complete discretion of The Office of Judicial Programs.
According to the University code of conduct there are two levels of violations relating to alcohol.
A Level I offense concerns possession and or use of alcohol. A Level II violation concerns use paired with operating a vehicle, committing a violent act, disorderly conduct or damage of property.
There are punishments for both Level I and II violations. For Level I the punishment includes the mandatory attendance of an alcohol education program and 6-12 months of probation.
For Level II offenses there are additional sanctions including suspension and other measures to be determined by the University based on the individual case.
Students are arrested for underage possession every year, but it is not a priority of the University Police department, which only arrests approximately 250 students a year for underage drinking.
The amount of students they notice who are underage and intoxicated is far higher, however.
“If we wanted to arrest every underage drinker it would be so easy,” Williamson said. “It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Even with the risks, students still drink and are arrested for underage possession.
“My friends and I used to go skate at the Hull Street parking deck and drink a beer,” said Zach Parker, who was arrested for under possession last year. “It’s sound dumb and it really was.”
Parker had found the area to be s safe zone and really considered it no less risky then drinking at his own residents.
The protocol for Parker and his friends was to drink a beer while riding a skateboard to the bottom of the parking deck and then ride the elevator back up to the top.
“In our minds we had done so many things before in that parking deck,” Parker said. “What could go wrong?”
On this particular day one of Parker’s friends felt something was wrong.
“He suggested we get rid of our beers before we went down and my other friend and I didn’t listen to him,” Parker said. “We should have listened to his infinite wisdom.”
On what would be there last ride down, a University police officer approached the three students and questioned them about their activities at the parking deck.
“You can’t really skate in the parking deck so that’s why she approached us,” Parker said.
The officer noticed Parker and one of his friends were holding beer cans and after an ID check they were immediately arrested for minor possession.
“My other friend was let go, even though he had been drinking,” Parker said. “He just didn’t have any beer on him at the time.”
University police are not the only law enforcement that catches underage drinkers.
“The first semester of my freshman year I got a minor possession charge downtown,” said Bryan Thompson, a student at the University.
Thompson said he was caught when his friend tried to sneak him a fake ID downtown when an officer noticed the handoff.
“He made me show him the fake and both me and my friend were arrested,” Thompson said.
Even though he was arrested by an Athens-Clarke County officer outside of University property, Thompson was still liable for a Code of Conduct violation because he was a student.
Consumption of alcohol is a part of not only University life, but life in general. While it is tempting for young students to engage in underage consumption there are risks involved.
If students decide to run the risk of drinking underage there are things that can be done to keep them safe.
Although Williamson said he could never condone drinking underage, he said the problem does not lie with drinking, but excess.
“If everyone drank in a responsible manner then I would never know how old you are because I would have no reason to ask,” Williamson said.