UPDATE: Undercover police and University partner to target underage drinking on holidays, gamedays
On a Thursday night in September, a LSA freshman named Hannah — who asked that only her first name be used because she is discussing underage drinking — had a few mixed drinks with her friends in her dorm room before going out. It was an 18+ night at BTB Cantina — a bar located on South University Avenue. At the time, Hannah was just old enough to get through the door. She was careful not drink at the bar — the bouncers had drawn X’s on her hands in Sharpie, indicating she was a minor and would not be served.
Hannah left BTB Cantina at about midnight but came back for her friend so she could walk her home. When she arrived back at the bar, her friend was speaking to a man in a T-shirt who appeared to be in his late 20s. Another man wearing a jersey approached her as well.
It took several minutes for Hannah to realize they were cops.
“(He) was like, ‘Have you been drinking?’ ” Hannah said in an interview last week. “And I had no idea who this guy was — I was extremely caught off guard; he didn’t have a badge or anything. I had no idea he was an undercover cop.”
She admitted to the man that she had been drinking, but only a little.
“Right then and there, he was like, ‘All right, blow,’ pulled out his badge, pulled out his Breathalyzer,” she said. “They just handled it so poorly. First of all, they didn’t ask me to blow, they told me to, which I found out is illegal — apparently I can refuse to blow.”
Hannah is right. Anyone can refuse a Breathalyzer, though refusal results in a fine.
The officer then took a picture of both girls on his cell phone, and once both were given a ticket for Minor in Possession, they were told to walk home, according to Hannah.
Over the past semester, multiple students have reported similar experiences to Hannah’s, with a range of concerns.
According to Derrick Jackson, Washtenaw County director of community engagement, undercover cops have been a part of the county’s efforts to reduce underage drinking as part of the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department Office of Highway Safety Patrol.
A list of dates provided by Jackson include game days and holidays such as Halloween. All three of the students interviewed for this article said they received an MIP during one of the dates on Jackson’s list.
Jackson did not respond to further requests for comment about officer behavior at the time of publication.
The University also participates in targeted enforcement around underage drinking with OHSP for “events,” or dates dedicated to increased patrolling, funded by grants, that include working with Ann Arbor Police Department and Washtenaw County police officials, according to Diane Brown, University DPSS spokesperson. In an interview, Brown said OHSP at the state level has long been providing money and resources for targeted enforcement that usually pertains to road and street safety.
“The county sheriff’s department is the conduit in our county through which the money comes from the state, and then as individual agencies throughout the county, we can work then with the sheriff’s department to identify how those funds will be deployed,” Brown said.
Similar to how the “click it or ticket” campaign and drunk driving enforcement are funded from monies through the same OHSP, an underage drinking component recently added in the county uses these funds for targeted enforcement. Brown could not provide a date for the initiation of these underage drinking components through the funding.
“For many years, the University police have also taken the opportunity to leverage those dollars and be able to receive that grant funding to cover the expenses for having officers to conduct additional enforcement,” Brown said. “Instead of simply having regular patrol officers on regular patrol time conducting that additional enforcement, we can leverage dollars coming from a grant and have officers working those events just targeting that activity.”
“We view these efforts to assist as DPSS partners with many others on campus to help reduce harm from excessive alcohol use,” Brown added, saying these efforts also come in conjunction with efforts such as alcohol risk education and working with Wolverine Wellness.
With regard to the specific dates outlined by Jackson for targeted events, Brown said arranging the events is spearheaded by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s department with the input of the other collaborators.
“The coordination (of dates) actually happens at the sheriff’s department but the different agencies can make suggestions or make a request to have some of that money targeted in a particular area in addition to what they might be doing otherwise,” she said.
Despite the stated intention of the OHSP to ensure minors are not illegally drinking alcohol, many students interviewed by The Michigan Daily said they feel the actions of these officers have been inappropriate and have led them to be wary and untrusting of law enforcement surrounding the University of Michigan campus.
“They were very disrespectful — it was clear that safety was not their first priority,” Hannah said. “They just wanted to hand out tickets.”
Because of this incident, Hannah said that was her first and last time at BTB Cantina.
The next day, Hannah contacted Student Legal Services, where she was told her she could either fight the charges against her or enter into the First Offender Program, a process specific to the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor that allows for prevention of a criminal record in the cases of first-offense MIPs if she complied with the rest of the program.
LSA freshman Quinn, who also asked to be identified by first name only, had similar experiences to Hannah. She has received two MIPs this school year.
The first football game day of the season, following a long morning of tailgating at fraternities, Quinn stumbled in the stadium and was approached by officers of DPSS. She was asked to blow into a Breathalyzer and was sent in an ambulance to the hospital, where she slept for a few hours.
Quinn also sought help from Student Legal Services, paid the $405 fine and attended BASICS — the mandatory Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students alcohol awareness program that is part of the First Offender Program. She also had to meet with the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, as is mandated for alcohol-related incidents on campus, and was placed on six months of non-reporting probation, which does not require in-person follow-ups with probation officers.
Until one night, at the end of October when she left Study Hall Lounge — a bar on South University Avenue — and three people pulled her and her friends aside.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, we were going to give an MIP to the next people that walked by here, so I guess you’re the unlucky ones,’ ” Quinn said. “(But they said) ‘If you blow below a 0.1 (on the Breathalyzer), we’re just going to let you go.’ ”
One of Quinn’s friends had a blood alcohol content of 0.09, and was allowed to leave. Quinn and her friend had blood alcohol contents of 0.12 and 0.14, respectively, and both were given MIPs.
“I shouldn’t have blown, but they know how to coerce you into it,” Quinn said, expressing concern about how the undercover officers “aggressively” handled the situation. “They took our phones out of our hands and took our fake IDs out of the back.”
Quinn said she found DPSS acted much more professionally in her first incident than the Washtenaw County officers did.
“(The undercover police) were joking around with each other, and I was like, ‘This isn’t funny,’ ” Quinn said. “The first (MIP) I wasn’t even mad about … The second one I was mad about. I wasn’t very drunk and I felt like they were unfair about it.”
LSA freshman Josie, who also asked to be identified by first name only, said she felt the officer who approached her when she received an MIP was aggressive and forceful with the Breathalyzer, as well as with taking a photograph, much like Hannah and Quinn.
“The officer stopped me and goes, ‘Have you been drinking?’ and I said, ‘No,’ ” Josie said. “And then he said, ‘If you lie to me again, I’ll arrest you.’ ”
Josie said the officer tried to convince her that her blood alcohol content was 0.3 — which she says is untrue — but let her walk home after she was given a ticket.
“I wasn’t drunk at all — I can remember the entire conversation,” Josie said. “I mostly feel victimized by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department.”
Similarly, Hannah said she did not feel very intoxicated, and she was surprised the officers did not take her home.
“That’s the part that bothers me the most,” she said. “If you’re going to enforce safety, why aren’t you making sure I’m safe?”
According to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, there were 330 MIP-related citations given out in 2015 and 283 thus far in 2016. However, it cannot be directly determined how many of these citations were given out via undercover officers compared to those patrolling outwardly.
Douglas Lewis, the director of Student Legal Services who has worked in SLS at University for 29 years, said in an interview that determining if the number of MIPs given out by undercover officers had increased this year would be difficult to gauge, because the records kept by his office can only reflect the students who use the services.
Statistically, he added, it may not reflect what is being filed county-wide.
However, K. Orlando Simon, a staff attorney at Student Legal Services for the past 15 years, said he believes not only have MIPs and the presence of undercover officers been increasing since his time at the University, but also over the past two years.
“From what we’re seeing, I think we have seen an increase this year versus last year,” Simon said. “Last year, to my knowledge, was the first time they were doing something like this.”
In response to student concerns about the legality of law enforcement approaching them randomly on the street, Lewis said officers are allowed to take advantage of the fact that people have tendencies to talk more when they have been drinking.
“The approaching people is not the issue,” Lewis said. “Anybody can walk up to you and say ‘Hi, what are you doing tonight?’ The issue is when you start being overly talkative with them. The focus really isn’t on what cops can do; the focus is actually more appropriate to be put on what students do. No person has to talk to a police officer.”
Lewis, however, also recognized the purpose of probable cause — if an officer believes a crime is being committed, and can articulate what that hunch is based on, a student could be detained but is not required to talk. However, Lewis said it is fair to utilize the right to remain silent when someone has “a police officer who’s standing there who can be quite intimidating.”
Following her experience with undercover officers, Hannah expressed gratitude for the help she received from SLS.
“You can tell the attorneys there actually care about student rights and student needs,” Hannah said. “It was very obvious that (my attorney) wanted the best for me.”
However, Quinn said for her second MIP, she did not find the services as helpful, and hired a local Ann Arbor lawyer. Quinn has since taken a number of steps — such as completing community service and participating in BASICS — to show her concern for having this charge on her record. Still, she maintained a relaxed attitude about her MIPs because of what she felt was a prevalence of the citations.
“It seems like it’s very normal — it’s like, ‘Oh, I got MIP’d,’ ‘Yeah, me too,’ ” Quinn said.
Ann Arbor city attorneys could not be reached for comment regarding these incidents, despite being the prosecutors in these cases.
For the students interviewed, the consequences have varied. All three had their court dates earlier this week, and both Hannah and Josie had their charges dismissed. Quinn said her charges will not be on her record, but she may have to participate in a program similar to the First Offender Program, with another court date in a few weeks to finalize sentencing.
Lewis said students should be aware of the consequences when going out to bars where they know law enforcement will be present, but bars should take ownership of the issue as well.
“In a city where everybody knows the enforcement is way up, why do we have so many folks walking down the street with red Solo cups or open cans of beer or fake IDs trying to get into (Scorekeepers Bar and Grill)? I think that’s the other underlying question; it’s not just enforcement,” Lewis said. “Everybody is responsible.”