By Tim Leeds
A committee met Tuesday at noon to plan its campaign to promote Zero Tolerance for Underage Drinking in the HELP office in the Masonic Temple Building.
The campaign, funded through HELP's Drug-Free Communities Grant, is intended to prevent underage drinking in a five-year program through a variety of activities.
The activities include developing prevention and education programs, forming alliances between community groups that address underage drinking, identifying links between underage drinking and other problem social issues, providing alcohol education and prevention activities to youth, removing the misconception that minors should act as "designated drivers" and advocating a countywide curfew.
One issue discussed was educating community members what constitutes a minor-in-possession (MIP) violation and its effects on the minor. Justice Carol Chagnon said people need to know that there cannot be minors acting as designated drivers. Being in the vicinity of alcohol constitutes an MIP violation under Montana law, so any person in a vehicle with alcohol is in violation.
Bob Peake, chief juvenile probation officer for the 12th Judicial District Youth Court, asked for clarification on what constitutes alcohol in the vehicle. The committee discussed the misconception that if there are no alcohol containers in the vehicle, minors who have not been drinking will not be charged. Deputy County Attorney Aileen Miller said that if any minors have been drinking, all in the vehicle are facilitating the crime and will be charged even if no containers are present.
Chagnon said people also need to be aware of the effect of MIP. She said since it goes onto the minor's permanent driver's record, it will remain on the record after the minor reaches the age of majority (18 years.) She said this can have serious effects on insurance, applications for the military or jobs and other areas. She said insurance companies will often entirely refuse to cover individuals who have two or more MIPs at any price.
The committee has also presented the proposal to implement countywide curfews to the Montana Association of Counties. Policies are being drafted to present to the legislature to allow this. Under current state law, only incorporated communities can impose curfews, which limits a peace officer's ability to stop minors for probable cause in rural areas.
The committee discussed starting an anonymous tip line to report underage drinking. Krista Young, program coordinator at HELP, presented information on a toll-free number out of Texas used by the Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking organization. The Texas company takes calls from the entire state and refers the information to the appropriate law enforcement agency in Pennsylvania. Young said she would do some additional research into the company to see if it would be more beneficial than starting a local line.
Committee members said there seems to have been some success for the campaign already. Sheriff Tim Solomon said there are fewer "keggers" going on during spring weekends, although some party-goers seem to have switched to cans and bottles instead of using kegs. Fire Chief Craig Ellingson said there are fewer serious youth alcohol-related car accidents happening.
The committee will meet again next Wednesday at noon to continue their planning on promoting the zero tolerance campaign.