Perceived Underage Drinking Problem in State College
On September 12, 2012, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee held a public meeting session in State College, and part of the agenda was discussion of a proposed amendment to the Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness laws that were sponsored by Centre County Senator Jake Corman. The proposed amendments would substantially increase the maximum fines for Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness. Clearly, the proposed amendments are focused on punishing Penn State students for Underage Drinking and alcohol related offenses.
Under current Pennsylvania law, a person convicted of Underage Drinking faces a maximum fine of $300.00 for a first offense and $500.00 for second and subsequent offenses. If the proposed amendment were passed, the maximum fine for Underage Drinking would be increased to $1,000.00, even for first offenses.
The proposed change would also increase the maximum fine for Public Drunkenness from $300.00 to $1,000.00. By increasing the fine to $1,000.00, the two summary offenses would actually have a higher maximum fine than the misdemeanor offense of Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana, which only has a $500.00 maximum fine. A person charged with the summary offense of Underage Drinking faces up to 90 days incarceration, but a person charged with Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana only faces up to 30 days in jail.
The Committee listened to statements from State College Chief of Police Thomas King and Centre County District Attorney Stacey Parks Miller, and both strongly advocated for the adoption of the proposed amendments to the law. Regretfully, some of the testimony that was provided by Chief King was not accurate. For example, the Committee was told that the maximum fine for Underage Drinking is always $300.00, which, as noted above, is not true. As noted above, the maximum fine for repeat offenses of Underage Drinking is actually $500.00. In Chief King's opinion, the increased maximum fine is needed to deter Underage Drinking at Penn State and across Pennsylvania.
Will The Increased Fine Reduce Underage Drinking
The argument from law enforcement favoring the substantial increase in the fine for Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness is simply that a high fine will deter minors from drinking underage. The problem with this theory is that the fine will only deter Underage Drinking if the students are aware of the fine prior to acting. While the outrageously high fine may deter a first time Underage Drinking offender from consuming underage again, the high fine would do nothing to deter him from drinking the first time as he was not aware of the fine. Another issue is who does the high fine actually punish, the student or the parents of the student. While many parents will state that they would make their child take responsibility and pay the fine, basically saying "they got themselves into it and they will get themselves out of it," most students would simply not have the financial means to pay a $1,000.00 fine. Failure to pay could result in being incarcerated.
In many situations, it is actually the license suspension that stems from the Underage Drinking charge that is a more severe penalty than the fine. A first time offender incurs a 90 day suspension, a second offense results in a 1 year suspension, and for every subsequent offense the suspension is 2 years. A repeat offender is also not eligible for work license. The inability to drive often has a greater impact and more of a deterrent effect on a student that a fine.
Negative Impacts of Increasing Fine for Underage Drinking
If the maximum fine is increased for the Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness charge, many more students will seek hearings and challenge the case in an attempt to avoid the fine. Now, when Penn State students are issued a summary Underage Drinking citation, they simply plead guilty and pay the fine. In the future, if the same Penn State student is facing a $1,000.00 fine instead of a $300.00 fine, many students will request a hearing. If the student is not successful at the first hearing, the student has a right to file an appeal to a higher jurisdiction court for another hearing. The district courts in State College are already taxed with a high case load, and the increased fine will only increase the number of hearings that our courts must handle. Summary offenses like Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness are initially handled by the six district courts in Centre County. There are three district judges that cover the rural areas of Centre County, and the remaining three judges cover State College. A substantial increase in the fines could result in a substantial increase in cases that proceed to hearings and thereby increase the need for a fourth district judge in State College. Part of the argument for the increased fine is to deter Underage Drinking and also offset losses that State College incurs because of Underage Drinking, so it is ironic that the increased fine can actually further tax the resources of the State College court system and thereby increase costs if another judge is needed.