Local news reporters recently went undercover in an effort to investigate alcohol sales to underage drinkers in Washington D.C.
The news station, 9 News Now, used a hidden camera and microphone to film and record teens who were allegedly purchasing alcohol from a local liquor store.
Teens were heard on tape saying they had purchased beer and liquor from the store for years. Some were as young as 14.
Aside from the sensationalism of the issue (calling underage drinking an "epidemic"), this type of news reporting violates a host of journalistic ethics. In the one case where a reporter actually did identify herself to one of the teens filmed, the teen had no comment. The fact that these teens were filmed without their consent or that of their parents may be an issue that a Washington D.C. juvenile defense attorney could bring up if there was ever an attempt to use those tapes as evidence in court.
Still, most underage drinking charges don't come as a result of a news investigation.
Often, a minor who is questioned or arrested for underage drinking is scared. He or she may say or do things that could be stacked against them in a criminal case.
While an arrest for underage drinking may not be seen as a huge deal, if the defendant isn't properly represented, it has the potential to inflict serious negative consequences on a young person's long-term future. Not only could he or she be forced to pay a $300 fine and undergo a 90-day suspension of driving privileges, a criminal record could affect a teen's shot at being accepted into a choice university. If the teen is already a college student, they face the possibility of academic discipline - up to and including expulsion, which would inevitably affect future employment prospects.
With a good attorney, offenses like this are often pleaded down to lesser charges that involve a diversion program or community service. Sometimes, we can even negotiate to have the charges dismissed.
Many of the alleged underage drinkers in the 9 News story were identified as having attended local high schools.
Most police agencies take a hard line on this issue because it's one that is often complained about by older taxpayers. Plus, law enforcement officials want to be seen as tough on crime, and it's an easy enough arrest to make, particularly in a college town, such as Washington D.C.
The 9 News team reported that in the case of this store, the ID cards of teens were never checked by the store owner. In some cases, though, young people under the age of 21 will try to purchase alcohol or enter a bar with a fake ID in Washington D.C.
In those instances, the charge young people are actually facing is misrepresentation of age, which is a misdemeanor. That means there is a lot an attorney can negotiate for you, including dismissal of the charges in exchange for community service and a fine.