On March 3, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that would reduce the consequences of a minor in possession charge. If approved by the state House, the bill would make an MIP a civil infraction for the first offense, becoming a misdemeanor only in subsequent offenses, meaning a first offense would not go on the offender’s record. Fines would also be lighter for MIP offenses under the new law. While further evaluation of the laws regulating the drinking age itself, as well as the implementation of such laws may be warranted on both the state and national level, this new state law concerning consequences is a much needed change. The new law can potentially serve to lessen the disproportionate impact of MIP laws on underprivileged minority groups and will help create a safer climate around drinking.
The penalties for receiving MIPs under the current law are too harsh. As it stands, anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 found in possession of or attempting to buy alcohol can be charged with a misdemeanor, and can receive up to a $100 fine with probation. A second violation includes up to a $200 dollar fine and possible jail time of up to 30 days if the party violates probation. A third violation may have consequences of a fine up to $500 and possible imprisonment of no more than 60 days if the charged party violates probation.
Lessening the severity of overall punishment along with reducing fines for MIPs can lessen the disproportionate effect laws like this have on underprivileged minorities. Minorities are more likely to have lower socioeconomic status, which puts them at a disadvantage in the legal system. While students with access to financial resources may easily pay any fines incurred and hire lawyers who will help them avoid jail time, those with lower socioeconomic status face a more significant financial burden to cover the cost of fines, and they may be unable to hire lawyers all together.
By changing the first offense from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, the new law also lessens the long-term impact of a first-offense MIP on citizens. Having a misdemeanor on one’s record after just a first offense can have consequences that reach far into the offender’s future beyond fines and jail time.
Law enforcement already acknowledges that underage drinking occurs, as evidenced by the state of Michigan’s medical amnesty law. To promote safe and responsible practices, the law exempts those who voluntarily present themselves or their friend to law enforcement from receiving an MIP because they demonstrate an alcohol-induced “legitimate health care concern.” This new law for MIPs follows in the trend of the medical amnesty law because it seeks to create a less punishment-heavy approach toward underage drinking.
This kind of law-enforcement mentality can serve to make campus climates safer on college campuses across the state (Just as the medical amnesty law works toward this goal, a more affordable fine and lighter consequences from a first violation could make students less concerned about trying to hide their activity.) The medical amnesty law recognizes that when students are less likely to hide underage drinking, they are more likely to seek help when something goes wrong. This new MIP law could serve a similar purpose.
And while some may argue a disadvantage of this law is that the police may be more willing to write the first citation, this willingness could actually be an advantage, serving as a justifiable warning to offenders who violate the law. Since the first violation does not result in a misdemeanor and therefore does not appear on one’s record, a first offense as a warning wouldn’t be detrimental to the offender’s future. Additionally, law-enforcement officers who feel more comfortable issuing citations may be less likely to issue them subjectively. A police force that is less likely to cherry pick who gets cited is more likely to garner respect from citizens.
As well, studies have shown legal punishments are not necessarily the determining factor in one’s decision to commit a crime. Therefore, a more severe law like the one that currently stands doesn’t necessarily curb underage drinking. Further, a weaker law cannot be argued to encourage underage drinking.
It is all too clear that the MIP law needs to change, as the current law employs unjustly harsh punishments. The new legislation has the potential to lessen the impact of MIPs on underprivileged minority populations, makes the important shift from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction upon the first offense and can help create a healthier mentality surrounding underage drinking and relations with law-enforcement officials.