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As far as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is concerned, underage possession of alcohol is a criminal offense. When officers catch people younger than 21 with cans, bottles, or kegs—which they do hundreds of times a year—the perps get the full treatment: Cops frisk, handcuff, fingerprint, photograph, detain, and book them.

“I had to stand outside for half an hour in handcuffs,” says a college student arrested this past fall. “The police held me in a jail cell for a good length of time.”

“For most of them, it’s their first time in handcuffs,” says Lt. Patrick Burke, head of alcohol enforcement for the MPD. “It changes how they think about things.”

The pedagogical approach doesn’t end with the cops. In almost all cases, the District’s Office of the Corporation Counsel presses charges, obliging defendants to troop to Superior Court. Usually, if possession is the only alleged violation, the city drops the charges in return for two days of community service, a fine, or probation.

Since August, however, Judge Richard Ringell has been ending the lesson early. Ringell hears about five such cases every Friday, which is known as “College Day” in his courtroom. And he now dismisses them outright.

“The police continue to lock people up, and the government continues to charge them,” Ringell says. “But this court no longer has jurisdiction over the matter.”

The trouble, the judge and others say, is that the police are enforcing a law that doesn’t exist. Six years ago, the D.C. Council amended the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act to make possession of alcohol by minors a civil offense instead of a criminal one.

On Nov. 17, attorney Carol Elder Bruce filed a class-action lawsuit against the MPD and Corporation Counsel on behalf of four women arrested in October 2003 and one man arrested in September 2000, accusing the agencies of “reckless disregard” of the law in their “relentless pursuit of criminal arrests and prosecutions.”

The District’s problem with underage-drinking laws dates back to 1995, when the District’s Court of Appeals affirmed the existing law stating that possession could be punished by up to a year in jail. The court wasn’t terribly happy with the statute, however. In his opinion, Judge Frank Schwelb wrote that he was “astonished” that “possession of a can of beer by a nineteen-year old carries a harsher penalty than driving while intoxicated by a forty-year-old” and urged the D.C. Council to make the statute more humane. Two years later, the council downgraded the infraction.

For the first few years after the change, the police did not make many arrests for possession. Then, in 2000, an underage Georgetown student died after an alcohol-fueled fistfight. The police reacted by treating underage drinking much more seriously. In August 2003, the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Association received three grants for the enforcement of underage-drinking laws, totaling more than $1 million. Some of the subgrantees include the MPD, the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking, and the Corporation Counsel.

But on July 31 of this year, ruling on an underage-possession case dating back to 2000, the Court of Appeals ruled that “[t]he language and structure of the [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Act, as well as its legislative history, lead us to conclude that the possession of an alcoholic beverage by a person under 21 is punishable only by a civil fine … and suspension of driving privileges.”

Burke estimates that during the last two years, the police have made 1,500 arrests related to underage drinking—a figure including related charges, such as presenting a fake ID, consuming the alcohol, or buying it for a minor. Bruce says the department has arrested “several thousand” since 1997.

Bruce says she plans to contact all these people and invite them to participate in the class action. She will ask that their records be wiped clean of possession charges. She will also ask for monetary compensation, though she has not yet decided how much.

Finally, Bruce is seeking a restraining order on the MPD that would prevent it from continuing its arrests.

Office of Corporation Counsel spokesperson Peter Lavallee says that the law has been changed since the 2000 case. “It’s a settled matter in the District,” Lavallee says. “The police had a good basis.”

The Court of Appeals decision, Burke says, uses ambiguous language. “There’s been no ambiguity for us,” Burke says. “We’re still arresting people for mere possession.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Greg Houston.