The Virginia House of Delegates, heeding the pleas of legislators troubled by teenaged drinking, today approved a compromise measure that will allow 18-year-olds to drink beer in a bar or restaurant, but prohibit anyone under 19 from buying beer to drink elsewhere.
Approval of this bill, which passed on a voice vote despite the criticism of several legislators who complained it defied logic, was seen as a victory for the state's restaurant owners and for House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfork. Moss, who often represents bars and restaurants before the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission, had blocked efforts to curb teen-age drinking for four years before endorsing the compromise.
The bill, which Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) calls his "Get-the-six-packs-off-the-streets" bill, will go to the state Senate assuming it passes a final House vote today. Sponors say they are hopeful the Senate will go further and limit all beer sales to 19-year-olds.
Barry today promoted the change as a way of reducing alcohol-related traffic accidents among teen-agers. Fairfax County, according to Barry, has suffered a 230 percent increase in teen-age drunk driving cases and a 100 percent increase in teen traffic deaths involving alcohol since the state dropped its drinking age to 18 seven years ago.
But many legislators said they found no reasonable argument for setting one age for restaurant drinking and another for at-home drinking.
"Why can a man who's 18 year's old and married take his wife to a pizza parlor and have a beer," asked Del. Johnny S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth), "when he can't go home and drink a beer and watch the Superbowl? There is no logic to this."
Still others complained that teenagers will easily get around the new age restriction. "I would suggest to you that most 18-year-olds will just buy enough beer to last until their 19th birthdays," quipped Del. V. Thomas Forehand Jr. (D-Chesapeake).
Barry said Majority Leader Moss had backed the compromise because "he felt [a drinking age of 19] would have a major impact on some people -- restaurant owners in particular." Barry said he hoped that a higher age limit for off-premises sales would discourge high school seniors from buying beer and distributing it to their younger friends, but he conceded that the bill was a halfway measure.
Eleven states have raised their drinking ages since 1975, and nine others, including Maryland, are considering similar measures.
In other floor action, today, delegates effectively killed a measure that would have given court juries a larger role in the sentencing of defendents in certain criminal cases.
Led by influential trial lawyer Del. Theodore V. Morrison (D-Newport News), critics argued that allowing Virginia juries to become more deeply involved in sentencing would unnecessarily prolong trials, clog the state's already overburdened court system, and involve laymen indecisions that are better left to experts. "I think judges who see these cases day in and day out are more dispassionate and less subject to emotional flareups than a random jury," said Morrison.
The measure's supporters argued that bifurcated trials -- which allow juries to first determine guilt or innocence and then to set sentences after a second court hearing -- were necessary to assure that juries were not "sentencing in the dark." By a voice vote, House members returned the bill to committee, thus killing it for the session.
The House also approved on a voice vote a measure that would allow state medical examiners to do what some called "harvest the dead" -- remove vital organs from unidentified dead persons for use in organ transplants. The measure had been opposed by religious groups, who argued it violated their beliefs about mutilation of the dead.