In N.H., a Beer in the Belly Can Get Youths Arrested
Sunday, February 5, 2006
DURHAM, N.H. -- The alcohol that got Julia Zukerman into trouble with the law wasn't in her hand or in the front seat of her car. In fact, she wasn't drinking or driving -- just walking -- when a police officer told her to "blow a kiss in my face" and smelled her breath for booze.
"I thought I was fine, because I didn't have anything on me," said Zukerman, 19, waiting for her case to be called one recent morning in the courthouse of this college town. "Apparently not."
The alcohol they were interested in was already inside her body.
That's the way the law works now in New Hampshire, where minors can be arrested for what is colloquially called "internal possession" of alcohol, to the point of being intoxicated. In a break with legal tradition, an underage person with drinks in his or her system often faces the same charge as one with a drink in hand.
Similar statutes are now on the books in a handful of other states. Together, they've taken the campaign against underage drinking to a place it has rarely been before: down the gullet and into the bloodstream of teenage imbibers. But they have also spawned criticism from some legal scholars, who say the laws are pushing the definition of a real possession charge.
"When the law makes the offense simply a biological fact, of simply having a certain chemical in one's body, that steps over a line in the law that has been traditionally accepted," said Richard J. Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has studied underage drinking.
At first glance, new prohibitions related to underage drinking might seem redundant. After all, every state has some kind of ban on possession of alcohol by those younger than 21, and most also have laws against alcohol consumption by youths. And how could a teenager get alcohol into his stomach without having possessed or consumed it first?
But, here in New Hampshire, police say it's not that simple.
In the old days, they say, the teenagers at a party would drop their drinks and run when officers arrived. That would leave police with few of the particulars -- who drank what, and when -- necessary to build a legal case.
"You couldn't charge them with anything," said Eddie Edwards, the state's chief of liquor law enforcement. "There's no deterrent."
Then, in 2002, the state legislature expanded the old underage-possession statute to apply to those "intoxicated by consumption of an alcoholic beverage." The offense is on the same level as a traffic violation, but carries a $300 fine and the possible loss of a driver's license.
Under the new law, police didn't have to establish when and how a minor had become intoxicated. They needed only to determine that the minor was intoxicated, with the alcohol inside them.