By Tim Eberly
The high school students who videotaped a keg party labeled the video cassette "Our Vacation." But Hill County Attorney David Rice refers to the incident as the "video MIP party."
The tape, of an underage drinking party in a Beaver Creek Park cabin March 23, was intercepted by Hill County sheriff's deputies. It has led to the conviction of 19 people who were taped in the act of committing misdemeanors, Rice said.
Of the 21 individuals who were issued minor-in-possession citations, 14 have pleaded guilty since March. Five others pleaded innocent and were found guilty by a Justice Court jury on Sept. 26. And two more, 18-year-olds Nicholas Holt and Jordan Anderson, requested a separate trial, which is scheduled for Oct. 17.
"It's sort of a candid camera thing," Rice said. "It was interesting in the standpoint that we found the tape and that it was as good as any evidence you could have. We had to go to trial to show them that we prosecute on MIPs even though officers did not catch them in the act."
Siblings Jessica and Russell McIntosh, who are 17 and 16 years old, respectively, and James Lund, 17, were found guilty of unlawful possession of alcohol by a person under 21 and were sentenced to a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service and a $50 fee for jury costs. Meanwhile, 23-year-olds Roger Otto and Sandy Strauser were found guilty of endangering the welfare of children and were sentenced to a $70 fine and a $50 charge for jury costs.
Those five defendants, who chose to represent themselves without an attorney, adopted the illegal search and seizure defense, and therefore maintained the videotape could not be used as evidence.
"We thought they had no right to look through the backpack that had the video camera in it or to view it afterwards," Lund said Wednesday. "It was zipped up tight."
The strategy was nullified when the defense failed to object to the visual evidence at the pre-trial hearing in August. "I guess that's why you need a lawyer," Lund said.
Rice said the videotape was confiscated during a standard police procedure a motor vehicle stop and that "it wasn't even in their (the defendants) custody."
The video was in the custody of Bradley Gunner, 19, who was pulled over by Rocky Boy police shortly before 2 a.m. on March 24. Police stopped Gunner for driving erratically and issued him an MIP citation. While searching his vehicle, police found the video camera in the bed of Gunner's truck, confiscated it and turned it over to Hill County deputies, Rice said. The deputies returned the camera to its rightful owner, Havre High School.
Officials from Havre High viewed the tape of the party and recognized many of those who appeared to be consuming alcohol. They discovered that a student had checked out the video camera on March 23, saying he needed it for a school project.
By digitizing the tape and freeze-framing certain photos, deputies were able to identify current and former students who were on the half-hour video. One student held a Budweiser beer can up to the camera, calling it the "King of Beers."
"That's basically what the movie was," Rice said. "It was a bunch of intoxicated kids doing what intoxicated kids do at a party: cursing and acting stupid."
Rice subpoenaed 12 people who had pleaded guilty to underage drinking six of whom were called to testify at the trial.
Lund said the defendants took turns questioning their friends and acquaintances on the witness stand during cross-examination. "We all kind of asked questions," he said. "It was different. I thought I learned something."
Said Rice: "They weren't happy to be there obviously. A lot of them offered duplicate testimony. A lot of them said, Frankly, I was too drunk to remember anything.' "