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Archive for Monday, October 16, 1995

October 16, 1995

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Having a drink in a local bar if you're under 21 can land you a date in district court.

You can find them at almost any bar in town.

If not seated at the tables, they're staring down at you from the "Wall of Shame" displays of confiscated, false ID cards bar owners put up.

Just how big the underaged drinking problem is in Lawrence is anybody's guess. Even those who deal with it each day don't know for sure.

One thing is sure, however, underage drinkers can cost both themselves, and the bar owners who serve them, money. They also keep law enforcement and prosecutors busy.

In the bars

"We just don't tolerate it," Rita Conroy said of underage drinkers. Conroy owns The Sandbar, an over-21 bar at 17 E. Eighth that caters primarily to older students, graduate students and non-student professionals.

"We card really well at the door," Conroy explained. "We spend time with our doormen to let them know our expectations. The clientele that we have, I don't think would feel comfortable to visit here, to be here, if there were people under the age of 21."

The Sandbar has one of the more visible carding systems in town. They keep a doorman stationed at a table outside the front door to carefully scrutinize identification cards of those who are attempting to enter. A questionable ID card prompts a request for a second form of identification.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time a minor can't produce one," Conroy said. "No one is accused of anything. They just go on their way."

She estimated that on a busy night, her doormen will turn away about five minors.

"I don't have too much of a problem," she said. "I don't think it's getting worse. You're still going to have kids trying to come in to be with their friends and have a beer."

Just down the street at The Bottleneck, 737 N.H., young people under the age of 21 are welcome most nights to enjoy the bar's live music shows.

That welcome is quickly withdrawn, however, for minors who attempt to purchase or consume alcohol.

Jackie Becker, who handles promotions at the bar, said all patrons are carded at the door. Those who are 21 or older are issued wristbands which are checked anytime a drink is purchased. Those under 21 are marked with a black "X" on the back of each hand. Roamers keep tabs on the restrooms and the bar area looking for minors attempting to remove the telltale identification marks.

"It's a risky thing," Becker said. "If you get caught drinking, there's a greater chance you will never, ever get to come in here again."

She estimated that between 10 and 30 underage drinkers are expelled from the bar on busy nights. She said many of those get their drinks from legal-age friends who purchased them .

"We've been fined in the past," Becker said. "But, we do the best we can to allow people under 21 to come in and see our shows."

On the lookout

Lt. David Cobb of the Lawrence Police Department credits Lawrence club and bar owners with making an effort to curb underage drinking.

"They're trying," he said. "I think they are putting out a good effort. But for every effort they do, there are three or four who sneak in."

Cobb estimates officers on the 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. patrol shift remove two or three underage drinkers from local establishments each week.

He knows there are more than that in the bars and clubs, but says staffing numbers and the need to answer other calls keep him from assigning a "bar car" on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the traditional party nights in Lawrence. Officers in the bar car spend most of their 10-hour shift running bar checks and arresting underage drinkers. Those arrested are booked through the Douglas County Jail and must go to court.

Cobb doesn't like the fact that officers don't often have the time to run bar checks. He realizes, however, that is just the way it is.

"The emphasis now is not so much an emphasis in the bars but on the violence we're seeing and the incidents in the streets," he said. "Basically, we're addressing problems arising with the drug problem, which are our street robberies, violent attacks, burglaries and thefts. We must be able to respond to those before we can go in and check on people having a beer in a bar."

Cobb predicted that the situation would change somewhat later this year when 11 new officers graduate from the police academy and hit the street.

"It's drinkers beware," he said. "We'll be there. If we get a call, we'll be there."

The prosecution

Marlon Williams is the assistant Douglas County district attorney who prosecutes most of the underage drinkers who are brought in by law officers.

He says that under the current law, a minor can be in an establishment that sells alcohol but can neither possess nor consume an alcoholic beverage. However, he also noted that the law allows minors to consume beer if that person's parent or legal guardian purchased the beer and is both permitting and supervising its consumption.

Though underage drinking is a misdemeanor offense, it is treated seriously by the prosecutor's office, Williams said.

"I think it's important for underaged persons to know that there is a time, place and manner for certain actions," he said. "And this is a case where this is just not the proper time. They often are not mature enough to handle alcohol and the way it makes them feel.

"I think it's important for underaged persons to know there will be consequences, adverse consequences at that, if they violate the law."

Like police, Williams could offer no hard-and-fast numbers on how many underage drinkers are arrested and prosecuted each year. He said the cases presented to him tend to come in groups, most likely because a single bar check or raid at a party can yield multiple arrests.

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