A New Approach to Underage Drinking Enforcement

By Geier, Michael | Law & Order, March 2003 | Go to article overview

A New Approach to Underage Drinking Enforcement


Geier, Michael, Law & Order


It is not uncommon on any weekend in any given metropolitan, suburban or even rural area that law enforcement officers are going to be dispatched to a call of a loud, unruly party involving young people under the age of 21. Absent the presence of gang members, a fight or some other more exigent circumstances, the call will probably not be given top priority for an immediate response.

Typically, two officers will be sent to break up the party and disperse those in attendance without any concern for those who may have actually been drinking. Many times the youths will run or hide at the arrival of the police, limiting any chance of appropriate enforcement action to address this problem.

Generally speaking, the usual disposition is to warn the revelers that the party will be shut down if the police are called back for a similar complaint. Officers take the attitude on these calls that these kids are just going through a rite of passage and that no harm will come as long as things are not out of control. The officers will probably not make any arrests or take any type of enforcement action, since this would mean an additional two hours or so logged on this particular call to issue citations or transport and book those actually taken into custody.

Other officers would also have to be called to assist the initial responding officers. In the meantime, calls for service would stack up incurring the wrath of supervisory personnel and perhaps the other residents of the community.

In a period of just a little over a year, the Albuquerque Police Department began to see the tragic consequences of negligent enforcement. At one underage drinking party, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death following a fight in the street. One might expect that those involved were the usual troublemakers who had some previous exposure to the juvenile justice system. This was a party for some local football players and the actual offender was a star athlete, and a member of the student council at a respected high school.

Not long after this incident, officers were faced with another result of unsupervised underage drinking. A 14-year-old girl had been attending a sleep over with just a few close friends. She apparently consumed a large amount of alcohol during a period of binge drinking. She was found unresponsive the next morning and paramedics were unable to revive her. The cause of death was determined to be alcohol poisoning: her blood alcohol level was 0.348.

In another case, officers found a University of New Mexico college freshman in an alcohol induced coma at an off campus party held in the city. The 18-year-old student later died at a local hospital emergency room. He had consumed as many as 20 shots of liquor at a party attended by college students.

A 15-year-old had been at an underage drinking party for most of the night. He left in his father's vehicle that he had taken without permission and drove off the road into a pole. Passersby came upon him at an intersection at about three in the morning, according to the police report. They agreed to jumpstart his car if he let them drive him home. The witnesses told police that this youth had a gun in his car and shot himself in the head after they drove him home. The victim was the son of a retired law enforcement officer.

All one has to do is check the police files to see that these incidents are all too common. The Albuquerque Police Department found dozens of reports of fights, weapons being discharged, shootings, stabbings, alcohol overdoses and serious traffic accidents that could be linked to an underage drinking party that went unchecked. A good deal of related juvenile crime can be attributed to alcohol.

It is estimated that in the United States there are over 10 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 who drink on a regular basis. In New Mexico, the cost associated with the alcohol problem was estimated at $450,000,000. …

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