A July 31 decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals will no longer allow the District to file criminal charges, only civil charges, for possession of alcohol by a minor.

In 2000, then-Washington, D.C. teenager Brett Cass was sentenced to nine months probation, $300 in fines and 40 hours of community service for possession of alcohol under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.

According to the Court of Appeals brief, “[Cass] claim[ed] that the only sanctions available for underage possession of alcohol [were] an administrative fine and a temporary suspension of driving privileges, which are civil in character.”

The brief further said that any penalties associated with a misdemeanor charge should not stand, including the record of the arrest itself.

Although the case was argued on Oct. 12, 2000, the appeals process resulted in a final decision on July 31, 2003 from Judge Tim Murphy, who ruled in favor of Cass. Despite there being no argument that underage possession is illegal, several conflicts in the statutes led to the decision that it was a civil offense. The lack of clarity led the court to rule in favor of the appellant, according to the legal brief. The misdemeanor penalties, which had previously been applied to possession cases, were referred to as “additional” and “alternative” penalties for misrepresentation of age to acquire alcohol under the ABC Act.

The court brief said, “The language and structure of the ABC Act, as well as its legislative history, lead us to conclude that the possession of alcoholic beverage by a person under 21 is punishable only by a civil fine . and suspension of driving privileges.”

Liz Weiser, an attorney familiar with the case, said that, in accordance with the precedent of the Cass case, “underage possession is a prohibited act under the ABC code . but that the violation is only civil, not criminal.”

Weiser said that the new interpretation of the ABC Act means that the Metro police should make fewer arrests for underage alcohol possession because as a civil charge, “[students] probably can’t get arrested for it.”

According to Weiser, in similar cases in the past the student was arrested and charged. The usual procedure was for the prosecutor to drop charges in return for a certain number of hours of community service to be done over a weekend or series of weekends.

Under the previous precedent, students would still have to reveal an arrest on future job applications, because the arrest remained on the record. Often, students would appeal to a trial judge for its removal and win, but in many cases, the arrest record would remain permanent. “Now, anyone should be able to go back and get that off their record,” Weiser said.

Future handling of such incidences by Metro remains to be seen.

“We have the option of issuing what’s known as a 61B, which is a citation, or of bringing the person in for a lock up. Technically, we can arrest a person for throwing a snowball,” Metro Officer Fletcher said.

The case raises even more questions about related crimes and how they will be approached. For example, misrepresentation of age in order to purchase alcohol has been understood as the misdemeanor charge under the ABC Act, Weiser said.

Additionally, according to Weiser, the use of a fake ID in order to enter a bar might come under question, but neither of these matters has been decided in the Court of Appeals, although they may be reviewed within the coming months.

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