Legislature 2001: Underage drinking law headed to governor

New measure makes it easier for state to penalize minors

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2001

A bill that reinstates criminal penalties for minors who repeatedly consume alcohol is on its way to Gov. Tony Knowles.

The Senate voted 18-2 Monday to pass the bill, following an earlier House vote of 28-3.

The bill is intended to fix a problem identified by the Alaska Supreme Court.

In December, the court struck down the state's authority to revoke driver's licenses administratively for minors who consume or possess alcohol or a controlled substance.

The offense recently has been a non-jailable violation and not an actual crime. The court ruled 4-0 that revocation of a license is a punitive measure that's unconstitutional unless the state follows the due process provisions of criminal prosecutions, including paying for public defenders and jury trials when needed.

The case involved a minor whose license automatically was suspended when he was found with alcohol on July 4, 1995, despite lack of evidence that he intended to drive. The result was "criminal punishment without criminal process," according to the high court's opinion, written by Justice Alexander Bryner.

Minor consuming cases haven't been prosecuted since the ruling, according to a bill sponsorship statement by the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill doesn't include a license revocation until the second offense. Minor consuming remains technically a violation, not a criminal misdemeanor, until the third offense.

For a first offense, a minor with alcohol would get a fine between $200 and $600 and would be required to attend an alcohol information school, where available.

Judges would have the discretion to suspend imposition of that sentence, although there is mandatory probation for a year or until the minor turns 21. But even with probation, the offender would have to complete a "diversion" program, including counseling, education, treatment and community work.

A second offense would require a fine of $1,000, at least 48 hours of community work and revocation of the minor's license for three months. The bill allows up to 90 days of jail time for a third offense, which would be a Class B misdemeanor, and requires at least 96 hours of community work and a six-month revocation. The sanctions entitle offenders to jury trials.

Overall, state agencies estimated it would cost about $1.1 million to implement the new law, according to a legislative staffer.

"I think it's a very fair approach after the Supreme Court ruling last year," said Matt Felix, director of the Juneau office of the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence. "The old 'use it and lose it' law was undermined by the ruling. I think this is a fair way to restore some sanctions, as well as monitor the kids in an ongoing education and treatment program by court order."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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