By David Rice, Hill County attorney
I have reviewed Tim Eberly's informative report on minors in possession in our community and accept your invitation to comment on the issue. As one who has participated in the policy decision to write tickets to underage drinkers, I am acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a law enforcement response to an age-old problem. However, my intent is to enforce the laws of Montana for the protection of all citizens. The consumption or possession of alcohol is just one of many laws that apply to young people. I don't believe that our high number of tickets means our efforts are a failure. Do we stop enforcing DUI laws because people keep committing the offense? The reference to Hill County as the capital of MIPs in Montana does an injustice to the hundreds of young people who have never received a ticket or got one and realized that they didn't want to get another. I care most about one number when it comes to young people and underage drinking fatalities caused by alcohol use. I note that there have not been many in years and I intend to keep working to keep the number near zero.
While officers write tickets and we prosecutors try them, a judge has complete discretion over the sentence. Every young person who gets an MIP is given a deferred sentence for the first offense. A fine is ordered and community service may be imposed along with an alcohol information course, but there is no record of the ticket if the offender completes the required term without another ticket. Many of the fines are paid by doing community services, so the community, rather than government, benefits from it. For repeat offenders, they are given higher fines and eventually required to forfeit licenses and privileges to force them to change their behavior. The failure to prosecute only admits that we won't do the hard work of enforcement and imposition consequences. Do we just let parents make the decision? Do we let underage people drink without control? Do officers just pour out alcohol and send them home? Do we wait until they get a DUI to get tough? Does it take a death from consumption or associated accidents to require enforcement? My answer to all of these questions is, "No."
Alcohol is a drug and its use is regulated for good reason. As evidenced by Eberly's report, minors don't drink a couple of "sociable" beers with friends. They drink to get drunk. If it's all right for young people to be a designated driver with a carload of drunk friends, is it all right for that person to drive around while the car is filled with marijuana smoke? How about the nonuser watching the door while his buddies snort cocaine or inhale meth? Somehow, alcohol has assumed a role as a right of passage for some people, but I don't think that is the case for a large majority of young people and their parents. Until I see a better way to discourage the use of an illegal substance, I will enforce the law as written. It forbids the use or possession of alcohol, and I don't want nondrinkers to be at risk of the actions of a drunk friend any more than I want the drinker to be at risk of harm by his/her own actions. How is the nondrinker going to control the large, drunk friend who wants to leave the house party or control the direction of the car? Isn't it better that the nondrinker stay home or engage in other, enriching activities? I trust you'll hear from others who will list the extensive offerings our community has for young people.
Drinking of alcohol by underage persons is part of a big picture. We have too many good people in our community to back off from strict enforcement. There are ample opportunities for entertainment without drinking, and those who choose to use will be treated fairly with the intent to discourage continued use. Treatment of alcoholism is a challenging task and the sooner we identify abusers, the sooner they have a chance for recovery. Young people do many foolish things as they drive and even play. If we are to give them a chance to see adulthood, we must do what we can to avoid exposure to behaviors that have been declared illegal. While I remain open to suggestions for new approaches, I will require compliance with the law because it is the best way to open the door for those who are not able to stop their destructive behaviors on their own. Whatever options are available to the courts will have my full support if they enforce consequences and encourage responsible behavior.
Thank you to the officers who do their jobs with honor and respect for all. Without their dedicated efforts, this part of the big picture of law enforcement would grow out of control. As with all other violations, a small number of offenders are requiring the majority of our time. To protect them and others, we must enforce the laws as written.