Illegal Underage Drinking Arrests

A Washington DC Superior Court judge has ordered the city to stop charging underage drinkers with a crime, because it is a civil infraction -- not a crime -- under city law.

Plaintiffs, many of them college students, complain criminal arrests for the infraction give them damaging criminal records that plague them for life.

Instead of being given citations similar to traffic tickets, as should happen with civil infractions, those charged were routinely arrested, taken to a police station, photographed, fingerprinted, and often jailed.

An earlier lawsuit contends that people arrested for underage possession were subjected to wrongful arrest and seeks to have their records cleared and paid damages for those wrongful arrests.

“Carol Elder Bruce, the attorney who filed the suit, said police and prosecutors want to have the threat of jail and a criminal record at their disposal because they believe it serves as a deterrent -- whether it is legal or not.

“’They are deliberately trying to teach these kids a lesson by treating them roughly, by intimidating them and mocking them and making them as uncomfortable as possible,’ said Bruce.”

The D.C. Chief of Police was unhappy at his department’s inability now to break the law to enforce a non-existing law.



  • Cauvin, Henri E. Criminal Charges Halted in Underage Alcohol Cases: D.C. Police Chief “Not Happy” with Judge Deeming Possession a Civil Infraction. Washington Post, 5-30-04, page C01.

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