A Michigan Senate bill aiming to reduce the severity of consequences for minor in possession of alcohol charges passed the state Senate Mar. 3, moving to the state House.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Rick Jones (R — Grand Ledge) last May, aims to address the issue of underage drinking by changing first-offense MIPs from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction. If passed, only after the first offense will a minor in possession charge become a misdemeanor, decreasing consequences for minors found in possession of alcohol.
Opposition to the bill thus far has been limited — it was passed with opposition from just two senators.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jones said he initiated the bill because he was contacted by numerous parents who were upset about their children receiving misdemeanor charges. Jones said the charges typically resulted from minors being found in possession of one beer, but in many cases students also had been confronted by a University of Michigan police officer who asked them to take a breathalyzer. Regardless of the level of alcohol present, police would then issue students a ticket and charge them with a misdemeanor, as state law mandates.
According to the University’s 2013-2014 Office of Student Conflicts and Resolutions report, there were 515 instances of illegally possessing or using alcohol on campus that year, including first and second-offense and three or more offence incidences grouped into three tiers. All three tiers of alcohol-related offense saw increases from the 2012-2013 OSCR report.
“(Current MIP laws are) actually driving students to use drugs,” Jones said. “Several parents told me that college students had decided it was better to smoke marijuana than drink a beer because the breathalyzer would not detect the marijuana in their system. I think this is a horrendous message we’re sending to young people — to use marijuana, that will keep you out of trouble.”
Currently, Michigan law mandates that for any alcohol-related violations for individuals under 21, a misdemeanor charge is automatic. For the first violation, consequences of the charge include no more than a $100 fine. For a second violation, consequences include a fine of no more than $200, possibly accompanied by imprisonment of less than 30 days if a previous probation order was violated. A third violation results in a fine of no more than $500 along with potential imprisonment of less than 60 days if a previous probation order was violated. Substance abuse prevention services can be mandated at any step in the process as well.
“People believe that we should not criminalize young people for one offense of possession of alcohol because the consequences are not just a misdemeanor,” Jones said. “It affects their ability to get some college scholarships, it affects their ability to get jobs when they get out of college and, in fact, there’s some state jobs, if you have an MIP on your record, you can’t get a state job.”
MIP laws have been modified several times by the state in past years, generally with a focus on medical amnesty. In June 2012, House Bill 4393 took effect, exempting minors from legal prosecution if the minor in question or a minor who accompanied the minor in question specifically requested medical attention related to a legitimate health care concern after consuming alcohol, according to the legislature.
This and other medical amnesty laws, some of which have been extended to drug use, aimed to get immediate attention for a medical issue if necessary, without the concern of legal prosecution.
Some cities, including Ann Arbor, also utilize the First Offender MIP Deferred Sentence Program, which makes first-time MIP offenders eligible to avoid misdemeanor charges, according to University Student Legal Services. This program, offered by the 15th District Court, mandates a student to attend the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students class. After six months of complying with probation requirements, no conviction would be entered to the student’s criminal record.
Jones said he thought it was important to go beyond current policy and ensure that consequences were reduced for all first-time MIP offenders.
“It’s really quite onerous for one misstep,” he said.
For University students, the bill could impact some — but not all — of the consequences of underage drinking. On campus, beyond state law, there are also consequences levied by the University in regard to alcohol use. The University Alcohol and Other Drug Policy specifically states that illegally possessing, using, distributing, manufacturing or selling alcohol at the University violates expectations outlined under the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. If caught exhibiting these behaviors, students could face sanctions from the University as stated in the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, including disciplinary probation, restriction from University employment, mandatory workshop attendance or transfer or removal from University housing.
LSA junior Erin Dunne, co-director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, said the student group thinks the legislation is a step forward in Michigan’s current framework of addressing underage drinking, but doesn’t acknowledge all of its concerns.
“The position of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy organization is that the drinking age should be lowered and it should be up to the states to decide,” Dunne said. “Overall, this legislation is definitely in the right direction, but it doesn’t include provisions that we would ultimately like to see. We don’t have a position on the best drinking age, but we think that states should be allowed to decide.”
Due to the fact that Senate Bill 332 is pending legislation, the University declined to comment on this issue. However, several efforts have been launched in past months to combat underage drinking on campus, including piloting a program in which the University would alert parents of freshman students who incurred a second related violation. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act allows, but does not require, universities to notify parents when an underage student incurs an alcohol or drug related violation. The University also initiated programs to engage with off-campus students about drinking, along with updates to the “Stay in the Blue” cell phone application, which aims to help students monitor their blood alcohol content.
In 2014, the University also shortened freshman move-in times in an attempt to reduce opportunities for underage students to engage in alcohol consumption.
Jones said for him, legislation felt warranted because of continuing alcohol abuse on campus despite efforts by colleges to limit it.
“I certainly don’t support alcohol abuse, but I do feel (the consequences) should be fair,” he said.
Dunne echoed Jones’ sentiments, saying she thought current laws don’t succeed in restricting underage drinking and do considerable damage to an individual’s future.
“Students who do engage in responsible drinking and still are faced with a civil infraction or a minor in possession misdemeanor charge and haven’t had a problem with drinking actually experience more harm from the law than from the alcohol they’re drinking because there’s a misdemeanor that ends up on their record,” she said.