D.C. police said recent court rulings have made enforcing the city's law prohibiting underage drinking so difficult that minors virtually have a free pass to purchase and consume alcohol.

Since May 25, a court injunction has prohibited police and prosecutors from filing criminal charges against underage youth who possess or drink alcohol. The police can issue civil citations, but those do not serve as a deterrent, Lt. Patrick Burke, the police department's traffic safety coordinator, said yesterday during a council hearing on a bill to strengthen the law.

"If I was a young person in Maryland or Virginia, I'd be here in D.C. trying to get a drink right now, because there's nothing we can do about it," he said. "We can't enforce [the law] right now, so there is a free ride in the city."

Police and prosecutors had been pursuing about 15 criminal cases a week against people charged with underage possession of alcohol. But a D.C. Superior Court ruling found that the offense should be a civil infraction.

Because only civil penalties, fines and suspensions of driving privileges are enforceable now, police officers who catch minors drinking can issue only a civil citation. If minors decline to show identification, the police have no proof of age and must rely on the young people to provide accurate names and addresses for the citations, said David Rubenstein, the city's deputy attorney general for public safety.

The purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol by minors is a criminal offense in 40 states, including Maryland and Virginia, Rubenstein said.

A bill before the D.C. Council seeks to amend the city's underage drinking law by allowing criminal and civil penalties. The bill is sponsored by council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).

At a roundtable discussion, Ambrose asked community leaders to help the council craft the legislation to make it enforceable.

"This is a very serious problem," she said. "We want to make sure we have strong deterrence."

If the council agrees on legislation, Ambrose would introduce it as an emergency measure before the council goes into recess in a few weeks. Otherwise, the legislation will wait until fall.

Representatives from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, as well as the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking and several other community groups, supported aspects of the bill and suggested modifications, including requiring offenders to participate in a diversion program that would include education.

They also recommended expunging the criminal records of offenders at age 21 or one year after conviction, whichever period is longer.

In the past three years, the city attorney general's office has offered 90 percent of offenders a diversion program instead of criminal prosecution. Rubenstein said the bill would allow police and prosecutors to retain that discretionary power to place cases at the criminal or civil level as needed.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area opposes the bill, contending that criminalizing the possession of alcoholic beverages by those younger than 21 is not justified, ACLU attorney Arthur Spitzer said. Being fingerprinted, arrested and having an arrest record is too stiff a penalty, he said.

Minors younger than 18 and adults 21 and older can drink or possess alcohol without facing criminal conviction, and imposing such consequences on a small part of the population is unfair, Spitzer said.

Burke said alcohol is often a major factor in the sexual assaults and traffic accidents of people between 18 and 21.

"I'd rather see a young person crying in handcuffs rather than a young person crying at the scene of a crash because their friend is dead," Burke said. "I'm sick of it. We see too many young people killed."