BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY
Published May 20, 2015
The proposed Senate Bill 332 would change underage possession of alcohol to a civil infraction. Referred to as a “minor in possession,” or an MIP, underage possession of alcohol is currently a misdemeanor crime. The bill would retain the fees associated with MIPs — up to $100 for the first violation and $200 for the second violation— and the third violation would then be considered a misdemeanor. However, the first and second violations would no longer involve jail time or a criminal record. Additionally, this bill would limit the ability of law enforcement officials to require breathalyzer tests from minors they have reasonable cause to believe have been drinking. Instead, law enforcement officials would only be able to request that minors submit to the exam. The benefits of this bill are clear. It would prevent young people from being denied scholarships, college admission and job opportunities because of a youthful mistake, and allow the re-allocation of resources currently being used to process MIPs in court. Although this bill would lessen the consequences for underage drinking, it retains enough consequences to be similarly preventative as the current law.
Senate Bill 332 was introduced by Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) in an effort to stop MIP cases from clogging criminal courts. Reducing MIP cases would allow for police officers, prosecutors and judges to use their time for other more pressing concerns. Particularly, the legislation would allow police officers to work to make their communities safer and reduce the amount of time they need to spend as witnesses to these cases. However, some MIP cases would still be misdemeanors, such as those that include the purchase of alcohol using fraudulent identification and any violations past the second civil infraction. This would prevent courts from being hindered but still demonstrate that underage drinking is taken seriously. Additionally, it should be noted that in 2013, the counties with the highest amounts of MIPs were all counties containing major public universities. Two of the top four counties are home to Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Clearly, MIPs largely affect college students, who are participating in the widely accepted and practiced social activity.
Although underage drinking is illegal, the current status is too harsh of a punishment to impose when the behavior is so prevalent on college campuses. We need to ensure that those students caught breaking this law aren’t stuck with a criminal record and won't be prohibited from student loans and scholarships as a result of this infraction. By doing so, the proposed legislation protects students’ futures from being permanently impacted by a short-term indiscretion. Rather than funnel students into the criminal justice system, more educational efforts should be extended to curb drinking behaviors in underage students. Additionally, by diminishing the potential for punishment, the modified law may prevent students who may have already acquired an MIP from adopting more dangerous habits or re-locating drinking to unsafe settings simply out of a fear of facing further criminal consequences. As anti-drinking enforcement efforts increased on campus during Welcome Week this past year, for example, an increase of drinking behavior was seen in off-campus housing where these behaviors are far less monitored.
Additionally, rather than instilling students with a fear of incurring criminal charges, fines and a multitude of potential future consequences, the legislation emphasizes the idea that drinking is largely a public health issue. More effort needs to be directed at advocating responsible and safe drinking habits in college communities. The bill — by removing the consequences of criminal charges — removes deterrents that may prevent students from seeking medical assistance if a drinking problem does exist. Currently, a medical amnesty law exists in Michigan that protects any minor from receiving an MIP for seeking medical treatment for alcohol poisoning for either another minor or for themselves. However, if minors are unaware of this medical amnesty legislation, the diminished consequences offered by this bill could further reassure minors that they won’t face criminal charges solely for seeking treatment.