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Students incur only minor penalties for alcohol offenses

On any weekend night, within a stone's throw of the Rotunda, one can observe underage drinkers, partygoers walking with open containers of alcohol and underage students using fake IDs to obtain alcohol.

Few of these students expect to end up in jail -- and almost none do, say officials familiar with students' interaction with the legal system.

Students are probably over represented among those arrested locally for minor alcohol offenses such as holding an open container of alcohol in public, using a fake ID or possessing alcohol underage, Commonwealth's Attorney David Chapman said.

There were only 17 arrests on Grounds for alcohol offenses during the '97-'98 school year, University Police Capt. Michael Coleman said.

Enforcement efforts last spring focused on arresting underage drinkers in the University Circle/Rugby Road area, and police periodically make arrests for violations of fake ID laws at Corner establishments, Student Legal Services Director Lester Wilson said.

In fall 1998, police arrested several students in first-year dorms for underage drinking.

In one incident in September 1998 police arrested then first-year College student Wicliffe Sanford Lyne, Jr. charging him with possession of alcohol and for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

One week later, police arrested two more students; then first-year College student Kevin Woelfel, and then second-year College student Steven Jakub. The students were arrested for separate counts of illegal possession of alcohol. Police arrested Woelfel inside his dorm room in Echols House.

Crime and punishment

Despite these enforcement efforts, few students who are arrested for alcohol offenses face serious penalties.

Anyone caught drinking from an open container of alcohol in public is usually issued a summons by police -- a document which states that the offender must appear in court. In most cases, the offender does not have to go to jail after being caught unless he or she refuses to sign the summons, Coleman said.

Minor alcohol offenses like open container violations, use of a fake ID and underage drinking carry similar punishments, Chapman said.

"In terms of what happens to people ... they are interchangeable," he said.

The penalty for alcohol offenses such as drinking in public, underage drinking or supplying alcohol to an underage person, is usually financial.

Students found guilty often are required to pay a fine, which is piled on to other expenses, such as court costs and attorney's fees, that the student already has incurred, Chapman said.

In addition, many students convicted of alcohol offenses lose their drivers' licenses for up to six months, Wilson said.

Yet it is rare for such students to serve jail time for the offense itself.

"If they spend time in jail, it's because they were intoxicated when they were arrested," Wilson said.

However, judges often may assign a jail sentence that is suspended on the condition that the offender perform community service, Chapman said.

But Wilson said he only has seen a judge assign community service to students guilty of minor alcohol offenses once -- to a group of underage students arrested for drinking at Foxfield.

In some cases, University Police officers refer alcohol offenses to the University Judiciary Committee rather than making an arrest, Coleman said.

An indirect ramification of being charged with an alcohol offense is that the violation goes on students' records, where it may be seen by potential employers.

"It's something they'll have to explain when they apply for jobs," Wilson said.

The charge can be expunged from a student's record, but only if the student is found not guilty, he said.

What to do if you're arrested?

Students have several University-based recourses if they are arrested for an alcohol offense or other minor offense.

First, the Student Legal Defense Fund, a bail bond service offered by the UJC, is increasing their personnel and publicity, enlisting student volunteers to act as bail bondsmen and getting the word out to students that the service is available.

The program will only bail out students jailed for misdemeanors or Class 6, nonviolent felonies, said Corrie Hall, UJC vice chairwoman for first years.

A Class 6 felony is a crime punishable by imprisonment for one to five years or a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

Hall said she feels the service will be better utilized once publicity increases.

In addition to bail bond services provided by the Student Legal Defense Fund, students may also rely on Student Legal Services for legal counsel. Quite a few of Student Legal Services' clients are students brought up on alcohol-related charges, Wilson said.

Historical inequalities in the system

Historically, police have turned a blind eye to some student drinking and other minor offenses, former University Historian Raymond Bice said.

"When I first came here, it was not customary for students to get arrested," Bice said. Police "had a 'boys will be boys' attitude."

Until about the 1950s, students would be reported to a dean of the University rather than be arrested, then the dean would impose sanctions, he said.

One of the sanctions was that the offending student had to sign a pledge swearing off alcohol, he added.

Students were arrested less frequently than Charlottesville residents for minor offenses, an unwritten and unjust policy, Bice said.

"A lot of these things that happened back then weren't really just ... it was discrimination in favor of those who are rich, students were considered to be privileged," he said.

Now, however, penalties for even minor offenses are standard and applied across the board to student offenders and other offenders, Chapman said.

Another historical trend is that law enforcement officials have begun to consider alcohol offenses on Grounds as a more serious problem.

"Drinking -- the emphasis on that has changed recently," Bice said. "Public drinking was just not a crime -- now it actually is."

State officials in Virginia have helped to increase scrutiny of alcohol abuse on college campuses in recent years. State Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R) headed the Task Force on Drinking by College Students, which made recommendations to curb college students' drinking in July 1998 including increased efforts by law enforcement.

(Focus Editor Nicola White contributed to this article.)

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