Prosecuting underage drinkers in Pennsylvania will be a little easier if Gov. Tom Ridge signs the legislation unanimously passed Monday in the state House of Representatives.
Introduced last May by state Sen. Joe Conti (R-Bucks), the legislation would enable courts to prosecute underage drinkers without requiring law enforcement officers to prove where the consumption or possession of the alcohol occurred.
Bucks County law enforcement officials asked Conti to introduce the legislation, said Chad Davis, Conti’s press secretary.
Sgt. Scott Ohs of the State College Police Department said the legislation addresses something that was not a major problem in State College.
“At times it is a problem,” he said. “There are those under-21 nights when kids come in from out of town. I wouldn’t call it a major obstacle, but it was a loophole. You used to have to prove the crime was committed in jurisdiction, but now you don’t have to show that proof.”
Under the new legislation an officer would be able to cite an underage drinker who shows the obvious and common signs of underage drinking even if he does not have any alcohol with him, Ohs said.
Utilization of the existing loophole occurs a lot in the area state Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) represents, including Centre, Clinton, Mifflin counties and part of Juniata County, Don Houser, Corman’s executive assistant, said.
For example, a minor might consume alcohol in College Township, Houser said, but get cited for underage drinking in State College if he crosses township lines.
“Just because you crossed a township line doesn’t mean you’re not guilty,” he said. “It’s not a valid excuse anymore.”
Pennsylvania educates its attorneys well, Houser said, adding the new legislation closes the loophole that attorneys used to keep offenders from prosecution in the past.
But State College attorney Andrew Shubin said he disagrees with the new legislation.
Underage drinking might only be a summary violation but has a lot of impact on the defendant if convicted, Shubin said.
“Jurisdiction is an important protection,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be easy to take liberties away.”
Shubin said Pennsylvania police are well-funded and should have to go by the book, adding it is the state’s burden to prove jurisdiction.
“I would think there might be constitutional implications,” he said.
Davis, on the other hand, said it is the power of the legislature to make the kind of decision the state government made.
Ridge is expected to sign the legislation, Houser said.