Underage students on campus may have even more reason to look over their shoulders while partying with their friends. The Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly voted Tuesday to send a bill to the full Senate allowing judges to sentence underage drinkers to 90 days in jail if they accumulate four or more citations for minor in possession of alcohol citations.
LSA sophomore Steve Sullivan said he disagreed with sending underage drinkers to jail. “I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. “But what are you going to do?”
Under the current system, MIPs are misdemeanors that do not carry jail time. A person getting his or her first MIP will usually be required to take a class where presenters speak about the dangers of alcohol and the legal risk of underage drinking. After the second MIP, a person can lose their driver’s license for 90 days. After a third offense, a person’s license is suspended for a year.
Sullivan got an MIP during Welcome Week while at a block party and attended the first-time offenders’ class. He said the fees for his MIP were unfair. “I think they ask for too much money,” he said.
Student Legal Services Director Doug Lewis said a person getting an MIP for the first time usually pleads guilty, pays $200 in court costs and fees and takes the first-time offenders’ class. Lewis said these classes meet twice a month in the Michigan Union and typically have 50 people in them. He estimated that this meant about 1,000 people per year from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti take the class.
What signals do police officers look for before they investigate an MIP?
Department of Public Safety Lt. Jesse Lewit said a police officer becomes aware of an alcohol infraction in one of two ways. One way is someone calling DPS about a person who is drunk and being loud or disorderly.
The second way is when a police officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that a person has been drinking or is intoxicated. Lewit said some indicators that a person has been drinking include bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, balance and coordination problems or the “odor of intoxicants.”
He also said that if a minor is holding a container of alcohol, an officer could issue an MIP citation. “Open or closed, it’s a violation of state law,” he said.
“If we observe those signs, we are obligated by state law to continue the investigation,” Lewit said. The investigation includes taking a Preliminary Breath Test on a small handheld device kept in the police car. If the PBT reading is above .02 Blood Alcohol Content, an MIP citation is given. If the BAC is above .10, DPS holds the person at the station until they are able to give a reading of .07 BAC.
Lewis said the Michigan Court of Appeals is hearing a case challenging state MIP laws that judge an intoxicated minor to be in possession of alcohol. “There is a case going up right now about whether your body is a container,” he said. “Right now if it’s in your body, you are a minor in possession by consumption.” If the law is overturned, an intoxicated student might get out of an MIP, whereas a student holding a bottle of beer would be given a citation.
“The alternative (to pleading guilty) is to set the matter for trial. Right now if you filed for a trial date it would take a month to a month and a half,” he said. “Normally, on a first offense they are not tried. All a cop has to do is show you’re under 21 and have alcohol. It’s not a hard case to prove.” Lewis estimated that 16 to 20 people seek SLS services regarding an MIP each week.
SLS offers free legal representation and consultation to enrolled students. Sullivan said he didn’t seek representation when he got his MIP. He said the class was only slightly helpful. “The only thing I got out of it was when the head of SLS came to talk about how to handle the situation,” he said. “The legal advice was most helpful.”
Students like Sullivan should be careful in how they portray an MIP record to graduate schools or future employers, said Sarah Zearfoss, Assistant Dean of Admissions for the Law School. She said a student who is defensive or doesn’t take responsibility while describing their MIP record could hurt their chances for law school admission. “The fact of having that conviction would not affect their chances of admission to the Law School,” she said. “It’s possible that if it’s 10 in a one year period that might raise an eyebrow.”
She said an MIP also probably wouldn’t affect a student’s chances of getting a job unless they had hidden the information from their graduate school. She said it might affect a student’s opportunities in an organization like the U.S. Department of Justice, but probably would not impact the hiring decision of a private firm.