Saturday, August 9, 2008

Prohibition in Athens

National prohibition ended back in 1933, with the passage of the 21st amendment to the Constitution, ending the Volstead Act and America's failed attempt to control alcohol consumption via draconian sumptuary laws. But here in Athens, the spirit of the temperance movement lives on.

Sell Booze to Minors, Face Arrest:

Careless people who work behind brass rail bars soon may find themselves locked behind steel bars.

the Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General on Thursday mailed out some 300 letters informing bar owners and other liquor license holders that their employees will be arrested and booked into jail if they're caught selling alcoholic beverages to underage customers.

The new policy, which takes effect Sept. 1, replaces the existing one in which police issue citations to bartenders, who respond to the charges in court and may pay a fine.

"Arrest warrants are issued for all other offenses - DUI, underage possession, pedestrian under the influence - so it's a matter of treating those who violate the law consistently," Chisholm said.

Now, people convicted of selling to underage drinkers typically face fines of $400 to $500 and six months of probation.

But selling alcohol to an underage person is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, and prosecutors should deal with the crime appropriately, Chisholm said.

As Flagpole noted in its coverage of the story earlier in the week, while downtown bar owners are "outraged" over being targeted, the Solicitor is basing this change in enforcement on "evidence" of the large numbers of under age DUI arrests made in the downtown area.

This week also brought news in the Banner-Herald of a multi-agency "investigation" of a downtown bar which allegedly allows something called "Beer Pong" to be played by its customers.

A plainclothes police officer went into [Sideways] bar Satuday (sic) night with an unnamed civilian who paid the fee and was told by a bar employee that he could have "unlimited cups of draft beer," according to police.

The object of beer pong is to toss ping pong balls and drink the beer in cups where the balls land, police said.

Now, local government attorneys are investigating to see if the game constitutes an illegal promotional event, according to the County Attorney.

Attorneys, plural. It's astonishing, frankly, that these kinds of silly, punitive tactics regarding alcohol consumption continue to thrive in this town, this day and age. Social science research has shown for decades that strong-arm sumptuary laws end up making a mockery of the law in the eyes of the citizens, and tend to breed a general disrespect of law enforcement in particular.

While there will always be great political capital to be gained by "getting tough on crime," criminalizing hapless, minimum wage doormen and bartenders, whose job also entails stopping underage drinking, is, of course, nonsense. It shifts the burden of responsibility from the "perpetrator" (the very person who sets out to break the law by trying to drink under the age of 21), to the persons who try and stop them from being successful in their endeavor (and who may end up making the occasional mistake).

Also, there is no "evidence" to show the underage DUI's in and around the downtown area are the result of patronage of any downtown establishment. The correlation is inferred, at best, and doesn't take into account the fact that most young people, as I understand it, imbibe at home, well before heading out downtown on a Thursday or weekend night.

None of this is to make light of underage drinking and driving, or to suggest that it isn't a problem. But when every middle and high school in our little hamlet here in Athens is on the federal "needs improvement" list, and parents are trying to flee the county with their children in search of other educational opportunities, and we have serious, grinding poverty and violent crime to deal with, and we are shutting off street lights to save money (talk about "threats to public safety"), the idea that we are wasting thousands of dollars in public monies on throwing doormen in jail or busting "beer pong" games should give all local citizens pause for concern.

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