By Travis Gulbrandson
Vermillion is no stranger to underage drinking.
Of the cases that were disposed at the Clay County Courthouse for the period of Sept. 13-19, 24 of the citations were possession of alcohol by a minor.
Police Chief Matt Betzen said these numbers are comparable to those of the past few years, and that the trend should slow down following the conclusion of Dakota Days.
“We’ll probably write lots of (tickets) this week, and then we’ll probably see it slow up,” he said.
The police department has a number of ways to combat underage drinking, one of which is business compliance checks, which are held each year.
The checks involve sending a person who is under the age of 21 into local stores to try to purchase alcohol.
“If you fail a compliance check … basically you commit a crime, and we do charge the teller with the crime of furnishing alcohol,” Betzen said. “Additionally, if a business chronically fails, then they can be referred to the state department of revenue to look at licensing revocation options.”
According to a report for the year 2012 that can be found on the police department’s Web site, 42 businesses were checked, and 15 of them failed.
“Underage drinking has always been an issue in Vermillion,” the report said. “The Vermillion Police Department is working with the alcohol license holders in Vermillion to decrease the number of minors purchasing alcohol and to eliminate easy access to alcohol by our youth.”
Betzen said that one of the ways this is accomplished is through an education program that “just kind of reminds the night tellers, who may not be the people that receive the most education during training, what to look for in IDs.”
The businesses, in turn, help the police department, Betzen said.
“They’ll tell us when there’s a trend, like we’ve had a recent trend where it seems like people have been using fraudulent Illinois licenses that they get from a Web site,” he said. “We’ve started to identify kids that are doing that, and we charge them accordingly.”
Betzen said it’s a “never-ending battle,” and that the goal is to provide deterrents.
“We’re not ignorant,” he said. “We know that young people are going to drink, because they see it as an exciting rite of passage. But we’re trying to create a deterrent so that they don’t feel so comfortable that they do it all the time and they do it to excess, both of which will get them into trouble.”
While getting a ticket may seem like a big deal to a high school or college student, Betzen said it’s very small when compared with some of the other possible outcomes.
“We’ve had people commit suicide, we’ve had people get their necks cut with beer bottles in bar fights, we’ve had people with crushed bones, sexual assaults,” he said. “Those are the things that we’re trying to deter by reducing the usage and reducing the frequency of the usage.
“That’s when you see us doing compliance checks, working with the businesses to do these types of things, doing bar checks,” he said.
The number of tickets is always higher when the college students return in the fall, Betzen said.
“I think when we start out the year, you’ve got a lot of young people coming into college for the first time, and … alcohol lowers their inhibition to the point where they do things that attract law enforcement attention,” he said. “Then they find out what they already know – that it’s against the law for them to be drinking.”
As the year progresses, some students may end up “washing out of school,” Betzen said, while others will simply alter their behavior to avoid getting caught.
He is sure, though, that the number of citations will begin to decrease soon.
“You’ve got student loans that came out last month, so there’s extra money around,” he said. “But they eventually use that up if they’re hitting the bars or drinking. About the middle of October would be a good guess as to when the money starts to get used up.”
The trends are similar each year, he said.
“We’ve got a bunch of house parties at the beginning of the year, because they don’t realize that we’re going to show up,” Betzen said. “They don’t realize that we’re going to serve search warrants, and as the word gets around the parties get smaller, more contained, and we end up having to deal with just a few houses that continue to be a problem until we find other ways to deal with them.”