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Youths would enjoy more privacy, but police would be hamstrung in combating teen-age drinking under a new court ruling that blocks search warrants for evidence of underage drinking in homes.
``I'm not going to condone kids drinking, but I don't think it warrants the intervention that our society here in this town grants it,'' said attorney Patrick Conheady.
``It's not a mere technicality,'' said attorney David Mallet, who sought the new ruling for a client. ``We're talking constitutional protections and what the Legislature has specifically authorized the courts to do.''
Juneau Police Lt. Ron Forneris said teen-age drinking is a serious problem, leading to dangerous behavior such as drunken driving. But court decisions are making it harder for the police to deal with the issue, he said.
``We keep attempting to do what the courts tell us we have to do to deal with these cases. Most of our options are being rapidly foreclosed by these decisions,'' Forneris said.
Juneau Magistrate John Sivertsen Jr. earlier this week threw out evidence against Matthew Euteneier gained from a search warrant. The 20-year-old man was cited for underage drinking Oct. 31, 1999, at a house party near Gold and Fifth streets.
Sivertsen agreed with defense attorney Mallet that state law doesn't include underage drinking in the types of offenses search warrants may be used for. And Sivertsen agreed invited guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
State law restricts search warrants to looking for evidence of a crime, and the state defines crimes as misdemeanors or felonies - offenses that may carry jail sentences.
The state's definition of crime doesn't include lesser offenses such as motor vehicle infractions or underage drinking violations, which are subject only to fines.
The law's language is plain and unambiguous, Sivertsen wrote in his order suppressing the evidence against Euteneier. If legislators wanted search warrants to include lesser offenses, they could have written the law that way, he said.
When the Legislature wrote the search warrant law, underage drinking was a misdemeanor, said Assistant District Attorney David Brower. But even after lawmakers made it a lesser offense, in 1995, a 1980 law that applies most misdemeanor laws to lesser violations would allow search warrants, he said.
Brower said he will file a motion asking Sivertsen to reconsider his decision.
Sivertsen's ruling applies only to the one case. But if other Juneau judges, handling similar motions, were to agree with the reasoning, it would affect the way police deal with teen-agers' drinking parties in homes.
Conheady said he will file motions similar to Mallet's in two underage drinking cases - before District Court Judge Peter Froehlich and Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins - stemming from the same Oct. 31 party.
Juneau police just recently started to apply to judges for search warrants to enter homes where underage drinking was suspected.
Police previously had entered some homes without a warrant or the resident's permission. They based it on the doctrine that some emergencies justified exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches.
But in several recent decisions, Juneau judges ruled police generally may not enter homes without a warrant or the tenant's permission.
Police spokesman Forneris said enforcement can effectively stop youths from drinking in the short term. The court cases stemming from it usually lead to counseling that can help in the long term, he said.
But if the police aren't allowed to respond to youth drinking parties, Forneris wonders who will.
Last Halloween, police responded to reports of a loud party and possible young drinkers on Gold and Fifth streets, and found a 19-year-old girl holding a beer on the porch. Police saw other youths leaving the rear of the house.
The 21-year-old man who lived there wouldn't let police enter, so they got a search warrant from Judge Froehlich to look for underage drinkers.
Froehlich, at the hearing to grant a warrant, said there were adequate grounds to issue the warrant based on the dangerousness of minors drinking, the possible destruction of evidence and the possibility that someone 19 or older had furnished alcohol to minors. That was the case Sivertsen threw out this week.