Second in a two part series

A series of elements converged in 2000 that changed the nature of drinking in the Georgetown area.

Bars and clubs on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue were hosting raucous college special nights like two-dollar pitchers and ladies’ nights. According to local press at the time, the parties often spilled over into the sleeping neighborhood, causing excessive noise and vandalism.

Meanwhile, fake IDs had become increasingly sophisticated and accessible. High-quality images were available on the internet to download. When laser-printed on plastic and covered with a hologram sticker, fooling bouncers was relatively easy.

These factors, coupled with two high-profile student deaths at Georgetown University the same year, both involving underage drinking at local bars, were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the time of the student deaths, Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Alcoholic Beverage Commission liaison Art Schultz called on area liquor establishments to redouble their efforts to prevent both underage and of-age binge drinking. Both the university and local government met with Schultz to foster programs to reduce underage drinking.

D.C.’s Response

It was local law enforcement that took up the issue in a more tangible fashion. MPD began working more closely with area businesses in an effort to curb underage drinking.

For some, MPD’s assistance has become a fact of life. David Nelson, the manager of Rhino Bar and Pumphouse on M Street, estimated that MPD comes as often as three times a week to help Rhino with ID checks.

When the police come, one officer typically works inside, double checking younger-looking customers for IDs. Another will stand outside the door, helping the bouncers check IDs and sometimes, until recently, making arrests, Nelson said.

“Our relationship with Metro [MPD] is wonderful,” he said. “It’s good for business . if we are having a problem, we call the non-emergency police line.”

In September 2004, the District decriminalized underage drinking, making it a civil rather than criminal offense. Still, the police take names and give real consequences, Nelson said.

Punishment for those caught may include community service or alcohol education classes, a fine of $300 and suspension of a driver’s license for 90 days. Still, 20-year-olds caught by an officer at Rhino will not have a criminal record for underage drinking, unlike before.

Getting caught is as serious for stores as it is for underage drinkers: raids are the second tool of enforcement.

Between July and December 2003, 406 establishments were inspected for compliance with the enforcement of the underage drinking laws in the District, according to Washington, D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration statistics. Of those licensed stores, 26 percent, or 107 liquor licensees total, sold to the underage “stingers.” Yet only one establishment had its liquor license revoked and 13 had their licenses suspended in 2003.

Christopher Lee, a manager at Wagner’s Liquor on Wisconsin Avenue, was unsure if “stingers” had ever visited his store.

“I wouldn’t know, because we have never been caught,” he said.

The penalties are stiff. First time offenders, normally caught by ABRA’s underage “stingers,” receive a notification that the store has sold liquor to a minor.

After an initial violation, there is usually a $1,000-$2,000 settlement. But the second time, the establishment’s management must appear before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which can levy fines ranging from $2,000 to $6,000. If an establishment has four violations in a four-year period, its liquor license is automatically revoked.

In February 2004, MPD started issuing criminal citations to alcohol vendors at the same time that ABRA took action in order to beef up penalties. The misdemeanor citations can result in criminal fines of up to $1,000 or a one-year jail term, although the ABRA reported that no one has yet served jail time.

The city needed increased funding to beef up compliance checks and they got it. Since 2000, ABRA has received three grants totaling almost $1 million for “the enforcement of underage drinking laws.” Additionally, MPD received a $400,000 grant in July 2004 for “fake ID enforcement,” mainly used to buy ID scanners for officers to check on who liquor licensees are selling to.

Jeff Coudriet, director of operations for ABRA, is thankful for the grants. “The federal grants have helped us,” he said. “Now we are doing all we can.”

Despite all of MPD and ABRA’s initiatives to stop minors from getting alcohol and stores from selling it, Coudriet conceded that “it’s hard to say who is winning” the battle over underage drinking. “Technology may very well be a step ahead of us,” he said, referring to fake IDs.

Kenneth Bryson, a Media Liaison Officer for MPD in the 2nd District, also noted that the battle is ongoing.

“We have always had a great deal of initiatives,” Bryson said. “But making phony IDs is a long standing problem that aids and abets the problem of underage drinking,” he said. “It is not going away any time soon.”

Coudriet agreed, saying that there is “still reason for concern,” noting two recent high-profile car accident deaths involving teens and drunk driving in Montgomery County, Maryland and Spotsylvania County, Virginia.

Endgame

Despite the clash between city enforcers, liquor establishments and youngsters using fake IDs, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and better technology on both sides, the battle of underage drinking seems far from over and, perhaps, inevitable.

But it does not have to be like that.

“We are going to find liquor anyway,” one 18-year-old Georgetown student, who does not have a fake, said.

While she feels “a little” pressure to get one, the sentiment is commonplace among college students – they will drink, fake ID or no ID.

Another 18-year-old student echoed this reality.

“Any half-savvy freshmen girl can get more booze than she can handle without a fake ID,” she said.

But later, the same 18-year-old contradicted herself, demonstrating that the choice between getting a fake or just drinking on campus is not clear-cut.

“My orientation advisor was in the business school and made the most convincing argument for all his kids getting IDs now as freshmen,” she said. “By getting fake IDs this year, we will get more use of them before we turn 21. Who wants to be the last junior that can’t go to bars, where most of your friends hang out constantly?”

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.