Class action status was granted late last month to a group of 3,500 young people seeking compensation from the District for police and prosecutorial misconduct relating to charges of underage possession and consumption of alcohol.

The lawsuit stems from last month’s D.C. City Council decision to decriminalize underage drinking in the District.

Between Apr. 9, 1997, when the city council amended a preexisting law, and this past September, when the city council effectively reversed that amendment, underage alcohol possession and consumption could be prosecuted as criminal offenses in Washington, D.C.

Jail time and a criminal record accompanied these arrests along with other penalties, which typically included a fine of up to $300, a possible suspension of driving privileges, community service and attendance at alcohol awareness programs.

Washington attorney Carol Elder Bruce is representing the group, which is comprised almost entirely of current and former students at D.C.-area universities, including Georgetown, that were arrested between 1997 and 2004.

Bruce expressed her hope that the case, which she called “a very significant accomplishment,” will be resolved within the next year.

“The suit alleges an ongoing pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct including false arrests and prosecutions, negligence and infliction of emotional distress,” a press release from Bruce’s firm, Venable LLP, said. “It names police and police officials, prosecutors and the mayor in their official capacities and as individuals.”

It is possible that individuals involved directly or indirectly in the case, such as police officers, city prosecutors, current ayor Anthony Williams and former Mayor Marion Barry may be held liable.

Fridays were dubbed “college day” by courthouse workers during the period in which the law was in effect, because the city court would fill with underage youths charged with alcohol possession or consumption.

Brett Cass (COL ’02), who was arrested for alcohol possession in 1998, successfully challenged that law by arguing in a series of appeals that offenses for underage alcohol possession or consumption were civil in nature, not criminal.

After a judge’s ruling in Cass’s favor, the District was left in a difficult situation, obligated by law to prosecute such cases as criminal offenses while judges were required to dismiss them.

“The judge who handled these cases was clearly irritated with the government and lectured the prosecutors on why they were stubbornly pursuing these cases despite the Cass ruling,” Bruce said. “He was dismissing almost all of them.”

The legal confusion continued until July, when the D.C. City Council passed emergency legislation again changing underage alcohol possession and consumption to a civil offense. The law became permanent in September.

The current lawsuit, John Doe II, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al., seeks monetary compensation and the expunging of the criminal records of anyone who was arrested and criminally prosecuted under the District law since 1997.

“In the post-9/11 era, it complicates a young person’s life to have an arrest record, even for something that is usually seen as a minor offense,” Bruce said. “Moreover, being arrested, handcuffed in public, fingerprinted, and held in jail, and having your mug shot taken, is a miserable experience.”

Only five plaintiffs are being used as anonymous representatives of the 3,500 suing students. One is a recent Georgetown alumnus who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

He said he was arrested in fall 1998 when an MPD officer entered a party he was attending. The officer saw him and asked his age.

“I honestly think now had I said 21 [the officer] would’ve been OK, but instead I said I was 19,” the alumnus said. “So he told me to bring the cup back out into the alley with him. Then he told me to take off my belt and shoelaces, and I knew I was going to jail.”

He said he was acutely aware of the consequences of his arrest.

“After I got arrested, I knew the drill – you got a lawyer, went to court, signed up for the diversion program and picked up trash and then you were done,” he recalled.

He said he was grateful to his parents for their support and would like to see them reimbursed for the original legal fees should a monetary award be granted. They helped him hire a lawyer who assisted him through the process of going to court, he said.

A possible hurdle to the litigation arose when the judge granting class action status ruled that everyone arrested for underage possession or consumption of alcohol in the District since Apr. 9, 1997, must be included in the suit and made aware of their inclusion.

Bruce and her associates will have to request from MPD all the records of the people who were incorrectly arrested.

They will then have to contact them, including many who have since changed addresses and moved on with their lives.

But Bruce said she remains undaunted and aware of her obligation.

“If they don’t know that their record has been expunged,” she said, “then it’s still not right.”

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