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.