New law: citation likelier than arrest for teens with booze

ATLANTA (TNS) — Georgia police officers will issue citations to underage drinkers, instead of arresting them, under a law that takes effect today.

The new law doesn’t change the penalty for the violation — a $300 fine and up to six months in jail for first offenders — just keeps youngsters — in many cases, college students — out of jail.

“It will prevent underage offenders from having to go to jail, get a mug shot and post bond, and it will save our communities the related expenses,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert said in a statement. Cowsert was a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 160, which led to the law change.

Current law says officers may issue a citation to minors possessing alcohol but some go a step further and take the violator to jail. Officers will still be allowed to take violators into custody who they believe are so intoxicated they pose a danger to themselves or others, Cowsert, R-Athens, said.

LaGrange Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar said the LaGrange Police Department will not be changing its policies regarding the enforcement of underage drinking, but how officers handle that enforcement will change with the new law.

“Our enforcement efforts will remain unchanged,” he told the Daily News. “The only thing the statute modification affects is pretrial incarceration.”

For example, before the law’s change, if a minor was caught with alcohol, he would be arrested, taken to the Troup County Jail and booked. Under the changed law, which takes affect today, that same minor would be issued a citation on the spot in lieu of arrest.

“It’s similiar to a traffic citation,” Dekmar explained. Still, if a minor is being physically aggressive or is a danger to himself or others, they could still be taken to jail under those circumstances.

Dekmar noted that the new law will have little, if any impact, to minors in his agency’s enforcement jurisdiction.

For college students, the new law means fairer punishment, said Grant Thomas, an officer with the student government association at the University of Georgia. Thomas and other UGA SGA members pushed for the bill during the most recent legislative session after reviewing underage-possession policies in other states.

“When you arrest someone, you are affecting their abilities to get jobs and their futures. Once they are booked and that mug shot becomes public record, it can follow them for years,” Thomas, 22, said.

Public safety officials don’t expect the new law to have a large impact on the number of underage-possession violations. Numbers of underage-possession cases have dropped almost 50 percent since 2008, from 1,160 then to 591 last year, in Athens-Clarke County, where UGA is. Also, few people are arrested solely for that violation. The violations usually come with other arrestable offenses such as public intoxication or vandalizing property, said C.R. Chisholm, solicitor general in Athens-Clarke County.

With the new law there is a concern that underage people could drink more after they receive a citation, Chisholm said. “As unpleasant as it is to be taken to jail and be booked in, it ends the drinking for the night,” he said. “If they are cited and released and then go on and continue to drink throughout the night, the instances of over-drinking and charges like DUI potentially increase.”

“For the underage drinker or the student, hopefully (the citation) will mean that I need to stop.”

— The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Janel Davis contributed to this report through content accessed through Tribune News Service.

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