Thursday, January 16, 2014, was undoubtedly a red letter day for enforcement of underage drinking violations. On that day, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, District Justice Kathleen M. Valentine was asked to decide over sixty cases involving kids charged with underage drinking from a Villanova party that occurred at the Bryn Mawr Courts apartments at the beginning of last fall’s semester. I was representing some of these kids on Thursday and when I got to court I found the building overflowing with kids (and lawyers – lots of them) all trying to avoid the dagger of an underage drinking conviction.
Why is an underage conviction bad? For one, it creates a criminal record that stays at the District Court until the opportunity arises to have it expunged when the minor turns 21; secondly, there are fines and costs in excess of four hundred dollars upon conviction; thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it causes a PennDot suspension of the young person’s drivers license (if a PA resident) or PA driving privileges (for those not licensed in PA) from anywhere between 90 days (for a first conviction), 1 years (or a second conviction) or 2 years (for a third or subsequent conviction). Suffice it to sat the stakes can be pretty high.
Back to last Thursday. When I got into Court and was able to “survey the landscape” I found out what was going on. The kids were being offered one of the three choices as to how to resolve their cases. They were as follows:
- Plead guilty to Underage Drinking;
- Plead guilty to the charge of Disorderly Conduct;
- Go to trial.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all of these choices stink. If anyone is wondering what’s wrong with the Disorderly Conduct alternative, I’ll tell you: it too creates a criminal record at the District Justice level, carries fines, and cannot be expunged for a full 5 years from the date of conviction provided the defendant stays conviction free over that period of time. A trial is, on the other hand is, well, a trial – you can win or lose.
The above scenario was surprising to many in that for years, as a part of my PA underage drinking, I and other attorneys and defendants have been permitted to handle cases through what are referred to as “diversionary programs”. These programs allows the defendant/young person to perform community service, attend alcohol counseling, or a do a blend of both which, upon completion, results in the court dismissing the underage drinking charge. In essence, the young person is given a second chance while understanding the gravity of their mistake. Its a fair way to resolve cases as well as opening up the eyes of young people.
Last Thursday, the above was offered to no one. There was a hard line. As a result, parents and kids were confused. Lawyers were angry. Police just shuttled the kids into the courtroom for pleas of guilty and trials. That was it. During the trials, some kids were acquitted but most were found guilty. Appeals will surely follow. The result from January 16 could have a ripple effect on courts in West Chester, Bala Cynwyd, Newtown Square, Havertown, Radnor Township and other courts that have a high concentration of college and high school kids within their jurisdictions.
The moral of the story? Let this serve notice to young kids and their parents that underage drinking, and the framework the courts use to handle it, could be entering a new phase where the pendulum could be swinging in the direction of strict judicial action and away from traditional common sense diversionary programs that have worked so well for years.
I hope not.