New alcohol law won't alter police operations

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Police are glad to have the law but say they won't be out on the prowl for drunken teenagers.

Ryan Metz has some choice words about a new state law that could take away driving privileges for underage drinkers, even if they're not behind the wheel.

"I think it's stupid," said Metz, a sophomore at Southeast Missouri State University.

Metz and his friends sophomore Chris Chisholm and freshman Mike Hart are in the age category that stands to be greatly affected by the law that takes effect today.

They are not 21, but they are in college, where partying takes on a special cultural significance. And they drink.

The new law, possession by intoxication, targets their demographic. The only requirement needed for a violation of the so-called "possession by intoxication" law is a blood alcohol content of 0.02 percent. Cape Girardeau County prosecutor Morley Swingle said that equals only one beer in an hour. It takes four beers in an hour, or a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, to be considered intoxicated while driving.

"What, are they going to stand outside the dorms with breathalyzers and line people up?" said Hart.

No, say police officers.

In fact, officers say the new law will have minimal effect on the way they do their jobs besides giving them a more effective tool to combat underage drinking.

Patrols won't be increased, and cops won't be out on the prowl for drunken teens. But they are glad to have the law.

"It will basically give policing another avenue to pursue identifiable problems that involve alcohol," said Doug Richards, chief of the Southeast Department of Public Safety. "What we see is underage drinking and consumption of alcohol illegally is a problem in itself, but alcohol usage can lead to other problems. This will help us get to the problem quicker and work past that."

Richards said alcohol abuse can lead to other crimes, even violent crimes, and now that his department has arrest powers for intoxicated minors, that could help get those people off the street before those problems start.

Basically DPS will look for the same things it's always looked for -- someone who shows the signs of extreme intoxication will be confronted.

Under the law, Swingle said, a minor only has to be visibly intoxicated for an arrest and conviction. However, police can request a breathalyzer test on the spot, and if the test is refused, a search warrant can be quickly obtained.

Most police are waiting for some guidance from the prosecutor to figure out exactly how they'll use the law, which they'll get in a meeting next week. Cape Girardeau police spokesman patrolman Jason Selzer said his department is waiting for that guidance, but agrees with Richards that the law will only be used as an additional tool for law enforcement.

Metz finds comfort in that information, saying the law can be good if used properly to keep extremely drunken people from harming themselves.

Angela Branson with Southeast's Office of Residence Life said that most minors in the residence halls won't be affected, as alcohol only comes to the attention of community advisers in the case of physical possession or extreme intoxication.

"It all depends on their behavior," Branson said. "If a student doesn't bother anybody, we're not going to know they've been drinking."

Double punishment

College students could receive double punishment for alcohol violations. University code prohibits alcohol consumption or intoxication on campus, minor or not, and drunken minors would be referred to university judicial in addition to criminal court. School sanctions could include probation or suspension.

The case is much the same in high schools. Cape Girardeau Central High School principal Mike Cowan said a student caught intoxicated or possessing alcohol on school premises or at a school function can be suspended up to 180 days.

And any time such a student is discovered, the police are always contacted. Now it will be up to the police to pursue criminal charges.

Jackson's school resource officer Rick Whitaker echoes Richards.

"We always look for kids who may be under the influence," Whitaker said. "Now I will be able to take an enforcement action. Before it was just a school punishment."

Since the city of Cape Girardeau doesn't have an ordinance yet dealing with possession by intoxication, the county prosecutor will receive all cases. Swingle said he doesn't expect any more cases, but he does expect to see more trials.

Suspects will be more likely to fight the charges since the stakes are higher with the suspension of driving privileges, Swingle said.

But the law won't make much difference to Metz, Chisholm and Hart. They'll continue to party if they want, and Hart said they're not the only ones.

"I don't really think it will stop anyone," he said.

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