Pennsylvania underage drinkers face stiffer fines

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- When college students head out for a night of underage drinking, a potential run-in with police may be the last thing on their minds.

"You're not thinking about, 'Am I going to get caught tonight?' " said Peter Wertz, a 20-year-old junior at DeSales University. "You don't expect to get caught when you drink. It's become almost a social norm in college for kids."

But Pennsylvania college students could be in for an eye-opener: Stiffer fines went into effect as of Christmas Eve for underage drinking and public drunkenness offenses.

Now, the $300 fine that underage drinkers had faced has risen to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second offense, a change made largely because of costly, time-consuming alcohol-fueled crime in State College, home to Penn State University.

Lawmakers say the fine increase is meant to serve as a beefed-up deterrent and a way for towns to cover the costs of dealing with alcohol-related crimes. Violators, as they always have, also face the loss of their driver's license.

Most agree the increased penalties will do little to make underage drinkers think twice about grabbing a Natural Light or downing a shot of Jagermeister.

"I don't think when underage people are drinking that they're even thinking about [the fine]," said Craig M. Summers, chief of police in Kutztown, which deals with its share of alcohol-related crimes involving Kutztown University students. "I don't think $500 is that tipping point. It needs to be $1,000 for that first offense."

State Sen. Jake Corman, prime sponsor of the bill that was signed into law last month by Gov. Tom Corbett, said the fine hike was designed to give underage drinkers more pause for thought, but also to give college towns help in offsetting their cost of responding to alcohol-fueled crime.

Mr. Corman -- a Republican who represents Centre, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Union counties -- said the bill was proposed after discussions with officials in State College, where alcohol-related crime is driving up policing costs.

Thomas J. Fountaine, State College's borough manager, testified at a September hearing that it's not only football weekends, but "week in, week out activity associated with excessive and high-risk alcohol use that truly creates significant costs and contributes greatly to the over $3 million that the borough spends annually to address these issues."

Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Statistics show State College police in 2011 handled 535 liquor law violations, 295 drunkenness cases and 2,150 disorderly conduct cases. Combined, they represented a large percentage of Centre County's overall crime total, those statistics show.

The borough's police chief said two-thirds of all crime in the borough is alcohol-related and that 657 Penn State students were transported to hospitals for alcohol overdoses in 2011.

"Last year, the average blood-alcohol content for students requiring medical attention was 0.287, an all-time high," Chief Thomas R. King told lawmakers.

Underage drinking violations had carried a maximum $300 fine for a first offense and $500 for each subsequent offense. Public drunkenness carried a $300 fine for first and repeat offenses.

Mr. Corman pointed out that the public drunkenness fine hadn't been changed since 1972 and, if adjusted for inflation, would currently be about $1,650.

Mr. Summers, the Kutztown police chief, said young people caught drinking underage are most often concerned about losing their driver's license. He said they'll typically enter a plea to another offense in order to salvage their driving privileges.

District judges have discretion in the penalties they assess. Under the new law, the $500 fine for first offenses and $1,000 for subsequent offenses are only maximums. In some counties, judges also have the ability to place offenders into programs that allow them to have the charge expunged from their record.

Often, the maximum fine is not levied by judges. Last year, there were 13,959 convictions statewide for underage drinking-related offenses, of which 4,117 resulted in maximum fines levied, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The maximum fine was imposed for only 4,584 of the 27,309 public drunkenness convictions across Pennsylvania.

The Senate Appropriations Committee estimates that the increased fines will generate an additional $6 million for Pennsylvania municipalities.

The increased fines were supported by the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and Pennsylvania Municipal League.

An additional bill that would allow the imposition of a $100 fine to pay for local prevention efforts never made it to the governor's desk. Mr. Corman said he would propose similar legislation in 2013.

Mr. Wertz, the DeSales student, said he was unaware of the fine increase until told by a reporter. He said the deterrent effect may kick in once underage drinkers are fined under the revised law.

"When people start getting hit by it hard, it may be an eye-opener," he said. "Not only for the kids who get hit hard, but for students who are friends with these kids. But at the end of the day, people have the mind-set that they're not going to get caught."

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