The Penn State alcohol policy has been an abject failure. Irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption appear to be at an all-time high in Happy Valley, yet attempts to curtail drinking have only made things worse. So how did we get to a place where Mount Nittany Medical Center can expect alcohol overdoses every weekend and underage drinking an public drunkenness charges clog the local magisterial district courts? The sad reality is that Penn State's alcohol policies have had the unintended consequence of encouraging students to drink hard liquor instead of beer.
DUI charges are not limited to those who drive motor vehicles on public roads. In fact, a Pennsylvania Amish teen recently learned the hard that you can get a DUI operating ANY vehicle on a public roadway, including a horse-drawn buggy. Pennsylvania State Police recently filed charges of DUI and underage drinking against an 18 year old Amish man in Indiana County. The police pulled over the buggy when they saw two young men riding on the roof. All four buggy passengers were under 21 and were charged with underage drinking.
In Pennsylvania, DUI charges can be filed against sober young people, as a teen recently found out the hard way in Northampton County. Over Labor Day weekend this year, a 19 year old male was stopped at a DUI checkpoint. His SUV was packed with nine other students, whom he was ferrying back to DeSales University after the group had attended a party at nearby Lehigh University. The over-packed car was a Motor Vehicle Code violation in and of itself, made immeasurably worse by the fact that the designated driver had consumed a modest amount of alcohol. According to police, the designated driver's BAC was a mere .02. Although this suggests he had only one drink or had quit drinking hours ago, it is still enough to trigger a DUI in Pennsylvania if the driver is less than 21 years of age.
It is no secret that Penn State is a world class party school. Like a powerful gravitational force, this reputation attracts ever more students who like to party, perpetuating Happy Valley's status as the number one party destination in Pennsylvania for the under 25 set. But even Penn State has three sober weekends during the school year, with very few DUIs or other alcohol-related charges like underage drinking, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct or criminal mischief. These quiet weekends include the weekends before Fall and Spring finals as well as THON weekend. Some students, especially seniors, do not have any finals, so finals weekend is for celebrating, while very few students get rowdy on THON weekend.
Pennsylvania law carries harsh penalties for underage drinking, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in every American generation have had at least one drink before reaching the age of 21. Although all states now have a drinking age of 21, the penalties and degree of law enforcement priority vary widely. Many young people and their parents are oblivious to just how harsh Pennsylvania's underage drinking laws are until they themselves are faced with an underage drinking citation.
Few people are aware that underage drinking in Pennsylvania carries a possible jail sentence of up to 90 days. Yes, you read that correctly. A judge could send you to jail for up to 90 days for drinking a beer if you are under 21. Rarely do judges impose such a sentence, unless there are severe aggravating circumstances and/ or the defendant has been in trouble many times before. Also, most people who receive jail time in an underage drinking case are usually also charged with felonies or misdemeanors or with additional summary offenses, such as disorderly conduct, criminal mischief or public drunkenness.
Most young people charged with underage drinking are not looking at jail time, but they are all looking at a possible driver's license suspension, even if the incident had absolutely nothing to do with driving. A first conviction carries a 90 day driver's license suspension, a second conviction carries a one year suspension, and a third or subsequent conviction carries a two year suspension. These suspensions are always served consecutively.
I am a hardcore Penn State football fan, and it appears that only we ultras seem to care enough about position battles, player evaluations and the new coaching staff's schemes to venture into Beaver Stadium to actually watch the game. For the casual fans and those not even into football, the Blue and White Game has become a major springtime holiday in Central Pennsylvania. It celebrates the return of warm weather by "tailgating," which can mean anything from elaborate outdoor feasts to standing in the parking lot drinking cheap beer.
Even though there is no chance that Penn State can lose, not everyone will leave the Beaver Stadium parking lots happy. The nicer the weather, the greater the number of alcohol-related summary offense citations like underage drinking, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, not to mention far more serious misdemeanor charges like DUI, simple assault and resisting arrest. Wherever there is a large concentration of people drinking, there will be a certain percentage of people who fail to drink responsibly.
But not everyone charged with an alcohol-related offense was necessarily out of control or obnoxious. For Penn State, State College and Pennsylvania State Police, handing out underage drinking citations around Beaver Stadium is like shooting fish in a barrel, and a lot of these young people do not even get a chance to finish their first drink before being hassled by the Man. If you look young, and are holding a beer or even a red plastic cup, the police are going to check your ID. Obviously, there are so many underage drinkers at a Penn State game that only a tiny fraction of young people will be cited, but small percentage of a very large number is still a lot of people.
I understand that the lure of partying is far stronger for most people than an inter-squad scrimmage game with interest only to football nerds like me, but if you are not going into the game, you really should not drink around Beaver Stadium if you are under 21. Normally, when people commit a crime, they at least try not to get caught. Drinking in a public place in broad daylight in an area patrolled by hundreds of cops simply invites trouble.
If you are charged with underage drinking or any other alcohol-related offense, it is important to talk to a local criminal defense lawyer, who knows the cops, judges and the local rules of criminal procedure. Even if you are factually guilty, an attorney can often find ways to mitigate your damages, such as assuring that you escape without a criminal conviction on your record.
Matt McClenahen is a Penn State alumnus and State College criminal defense lawyer, whose office is a five minute walk from campus. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Alcohol-Offenses-DUI.shtml
While State Patty's Day mayhem is but a mere shell of its former self, it appears the tradition of IU Patty's Day is just gaining traction. Although the IUP student-created holiday has been around since 2012, it did not attract much notoriety until this past weekend, when things got out of hand. Videos show drunken young people blocking traffic, walking around with open containers of alcohol, jumping on cars, fighting, throwing objects and screaming and yelling.
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.
There are some peculiar glitches in Pennsylvania's marijuana laws. One such inconsistency is that possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, defined as less than 30 grams of cannabis, is an ungraded misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, yet the usual maximum penalty for an ungraded misdemeanor is up to one year incarceration and a $2,500 fine. By contrast, the maximum penalty for summary offenses under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code is 90 days in jail, with maximum fines ranging from $300 to $1,000. Thus, the maximum penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana in Pennsylvania are already less than the maximum penalty for summary offenses like underage drinking, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and criminal mischief. Despite this, possessing a small amount of marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor instead of a summary offense. You may wonder why reducing possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense is of any consequence, if the penalty is already less than the possible penalties for summary offenses. The simple reason is that misdemeanor convictions carry more collateral consequences than summary offense convictions. For example, all misdemeanors are fingerprintable offenses, while most summary offenses are not fingerprintable offenses. If you are charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, you will be fingerprinted and photographed. You will then be in criminal data bases maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. Your marijuana possession charge will appear in every type of criminal background check. If you are merely convicted of a summary offense, your case will only come up in some, but not all criminal background checks. With the exception of retail theft, summary offense convictions will not appear in background checks, which cover only fingerprintable offenses, but they will come up in background checks performed by private companies, as these background check companies will find every docket sheet, uploaded by court systems onto the Internet.
As a criminal defense lawyer in the same community as Penn State, I have represented my share of students who manage to tack on additional charges after being sent to Mount Nittany Medical Center following an arrest for public drunkenness and/ or underage drinking. Typically, the drunk student becomes enraged over the arrest and involuntary hospitalization, which leads to additional charges of criminal mischief for destroying hospital property, disorderly conduct for loud and disruptive behavior, or even aggravated assault for attacking a police officer or EMT. The aforementioned scenarios are not uncommon here in Centre County, but I have yet to represent a client like 21 year-old Ty Alsop, who managed to "catch a charge" of indecent exposure following his hospitalization for an alcohol overdose in Evansville, Indiana.