Setting the Scene
A little party never killed nobody, but it has harmed many people’s wallets and reputations. Underage drinking in particular lends itself to high prices and high stakes resulting from the court and college judicial processes.
There are at least 4,000 students under the age of 21 on the College of Charleston campus, and chances are many of them have consumed alcohol before their 21st birthday. The majority of these students are able to enjoy their parties in peace, but some unlucky ones encounter harsh repercussions.
In 2012, the city of Charleston arrested 189 people on charges of Minor in Possession of Alcohol and Residence Life filed 297 Code of Conduct violations regarding possession of alcohol. Regardless of whether or not they get away with it, those who drink underage exert influence on various aspects of the community, from the local bar scene to the local economy.
Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, students dress up and bar hop up and down King Street. Other pedestrians often cannot differentiate between an 18, 19 or 20-year-old and a 21-year-old, but bar employees have plenty of experience deciding if a patron is of legal age.
The bartenders at Burns Alley, which has a reputation for confiscating fake IDs and hanging them on the wall, are well versed in the art of telling whether or not an ID is legitimate. David Roach, a manager and bartender at Burns Alley, uses a reliable method when deciding whether or not to give a customer a drink. “I first look at the face,” he said, “then the birthday, then their picture and then the expiration date.”
Other giveaways include the state hologram’s legitimacy, whether or not the height and weight appear accurate, and whether or not the ID snaps when bent in half. (A real ID will not.)
Some fake IDs have become so advanced, though, that even law officials are fooled. Nestle Grimes, the Operations Services Commander at College of Charleston’s Public Safety Department, said that when it comes to recognizing fake IDs, “Sometimes you don’t know.”
High quality IDs do not come cheap. According to a survey of underage students at the College, people spend as much as $220 or as little as $15 for an ID, depending on the quality and circumstance of acquisition. On average though, most students with a fake ID spend just over $100. According to Grimes, a lot of these IDs come in through China and other foreign countries because domestic operation are more likely to get busted.
The consequences of using a fake ID are high, including fines of up to $100 and up to 30 days in jail, but that does not deter students from going to bars and liquor stores. Walter Simmons, an employee of Elite Security who is subcontracted by Midtown Bar, said that he usually turns down 20 to 30 people every night for using false identification.
Usually, he gives the ID back and asks the patron to leave. However, he makes exceptions for people who come back multiple times or give him an attitude. “If they put up an argument, that’s when you take their fake ID,” he said.
At Burns Alley, taking fake IDs is part of the business strategy; their infamy keeps underage drinkers at bay, mitigating business risks. “For me personally, I don’t understand the business model of catering to underage drinkers,” he said. “You put your staff at risk. The rule is the law. You do as it is. It also brings far more headaches than it is worth. With underage drinkers, you get more issues since they aren’t used to going out so they get loaded before coming out.”
Other places around town attract business from underage drinkers specifically because of their lenient reputations. Rob Hill, a 20-year-old student at the College, said that he found a fake ID on the floor of Juanita Greenberg’s and has used it successfully ever since.
“A lot of the places around here, especially the corner stores who need the money, are more lenient,” he said. “They tend to give a quick glance [at the ID] for the camera.”
Getting Away With It
One of the best indicators of a good night out for underage students is whether or not they were caught; 476 people last year had a bad night.
According to Sarah Buchanan, the College’s Director of Student Conduct and Case Management, students who are caught by Residence Life face different repercussions than those caught by the police. “Our code of conduct is separate from the court system,” she said. “If a student is written a ticket by a police officer, they’re pulled through the city system…We don’t communicate with the courts.”
The process that students go through with Residence Life generally mimics the Municipal Court system, but the consequences are less rigid. “It’s a very individualized process,” Buchanan said, with repercussions ranging from mandatory participation in the school’s alcohol and drug risk-reduction program led by the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services to mandatory attendance at alcohol-free events on campus, such as Stern Night Life.
Regardless of the severity of the crime, though, every student will have a note on his or her discipline record and a letter sent home to his or her parents. Students can appeal to have their record destroyed one year after the incident, but certain people in authoritative positions will still be privilege to the discipline record despite its nominal destruction.
However, the process is not meant to cause harm. “The aim of our process is to be educational and to ensure a high quality education for our students in our process and for the community at large,” Buchanan said.
Nestle Grimes, who deals with minors in possession through public safety, echoed Buchanan’s sentiment. “It’s usually not that damaging to most people,” he said. “We only take people to jail if they decide to fight or in general get stupid.”
Public Safety partners with the city’s Vice unit to patrol areas both on and off campus looking for underage drinking, and students cited by this duo will go through the Municipal Court process. According to Grimes, underage drinking is an easy crime to catch. “For us it’s on view,” he said. “If we see it, we’re just going to write the ticket. They have to produce their ID.”
Students who are caught by the Vice unit without Public Safety do not have to produce their ID. That is because Public Safety has statewide jurisdiction, while the city police do not. Either way, minors will receive a court summons assigning a date and time for a mandatory appearance before a judge.
When students are caught by city police, they are usually told to either pay a fine or go through one of two alternative programs: Pre-trial Intervention or the Alcohol Education Program, which allow the possibility of having their record expunged after a lengthy judicial process. Those who choose to pay a fine are admitting that they were responsible for the crime and have a much harder time clearing their record.
Alcohol is expensive. Getting caught costs even more. So how much do underage people contribute to the local economy by going out on the weekend?
According to a survey of underage students at the College, those who drink spend an average of $22 per week on alcohol both at bars and at liquor stores.
Those who are caught for underage drinking can legally be fined up to $470 for alcohol possession, $470 for possessing a fake ID and $100 for attempting to use a false form of identification or someone else’s identification.
In 2012, the government raised $2,096 in court fines from people charged with minor in possession of alcohol. Forty-five percent of these funds went toward the local government, supporting programs such as public safety and flood drainage improvements, and 55 percent went toward the state government, supporting programs such as public education. Ironically, underage drinking helps fund the College, if only by a very miniscule percentage.
According to the same survey, 96 average students would spend the same amount of money on alcohol in one week as the government made off of underage drinking last year. In one full year, 96 average students spend a total of almost $11,000 on alcohol, which, when multiplied by the thousands of underage drinkers in the city, contributes in a much more significant way to the local economy than any arrests.
The risk of getting caught might deter some students from drinking underage, but the consequences do not outweigh the fun of going out. No matter what, sophomore Rob Hill said, students will find a way to get alcohol.
“My opinion is, you know, it’s college,” he said. “Of course drinking is very inevitable. Should the bars crack down on kids? I mean, yeah. I appreciate bars who are more lenient, but I could also be getting drinks somewhere else.”