State Patty’s Day is one of Penn State’s newest traditions, and also by far the most controversial. Few people were ever truly offended by the time-honored and comical Mifflin Streak, but many State College residents have expressed annoyance over the unabashed bacchanalian festival created in 2007, when Old Main deliberately scheduled spring break when students would not be in town for St. Patrick’s Day. Penn State’s plan backfired when the students created the alternative holiday known as “State Patty’s Day,” which turned out to involve far more irresponsible drinking than the original Irish drinking holiday ever did in State College.
Since the holiday’s creation, we have seen hundreds of summary offense citations for crimes like underage drinking, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and criminal mischief, as well as misdemeanor charges like DUI and simple assault, and even some serious felonies such as burglary. The common denominator for all these crimes is the defendants were all drinking, and usually far in excess of what the defendants are used to.
In a desperate attempt to discourage participation in State Patty’s Day, the Borough and Penn State paid each State College bar $5,000 to stay closed on the holiday in 2013. The goal was to reduce the overall amount of drinking that takes place on State Patty’s Day. The hundreds of bartenders and servers who missed out on a lucrative pay day were collateral damage, who never received any compensation, while the $5,000 paid to the bar owners was a small pittance compared to their revenue on a normal Saturday when the students are in town.
It was a waste of money to bribe the bars to stay closed last year because the bars were never really the problem. I have represented State Patty’s Day casualties since the holiday’s inception, and I can tell you that most people charged with alcohol-related offenses on State Patty’s weekend were not drinking in the bars. First of all, State Patty’s Day is primarily celebrated at house and apartment parties. Secondly, a large percentage of the drunken revelers are under 21, and as everyone knows, fake IDs do not work at State College bars.
There is another overlooked reason why the bars were not a major contributor to irresponsible drinking. The simple fact is that bars are by far the safest place to drink in State College. There are sober adults in charge in the form of managers, bartenders and bouncers who will cut off and throw out anyone who has had too much to drink. They will also call the police and detain anyone who has crossed the line into criminal activity. This is not the case at parties, where often there is not a single sober person to be found. In fact, the party hosts are often the most drunk of all. At a bar, you must wait in long lines for drinks, which cost money. At parties, the drinks are either free or you pay a flat fee to drink as much as you want, and keg line moves quickly.
So if closing the bars did not curtail irresponsible drinking, why did we see a drop in State Patty’s Day related crime in 2013? The simple answer is that Penn State and the Borough did get some things right, even though they were wrong about the bars. Fraternities were banned from hosting parties, and frat parties were previously the biggest contributors to drunken mayhem on State Patty’s Day. Also, Penn State allowed dorm residents to have only one guest over the weekend, whereas in past years, four or five high school friends from other universities would cram into a single dorm room. In past years, out-of-towners constituted a high percentage of arrests, but with no place to stay, many did not come last year. The bottom line is shutting down frat parties and limiting dorm guests worked, while shutting down the bars wasted local government money while also draining money from the local economy.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania and Penn State alumnus.