Hundreds of underage area residents have been charged each year for possessing alcohol. But that could change if Gov. Rick Snyder signs legislation passed earlier this month into law.
The new legislation amends Michigan’s Minor in Possession law to create a civil infraction for first-time violations. Currently, those under 21 caught with alcohol can face fines and jail time. They also rack up a permanent criminal record, which can hamper job and educational prospects.
The change in the law is good news, said East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows. He and others supported the shift.
“We felt that the use of a noncriminal approach was a better approach,” Meadows said.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, sponsored the legislation. He said he expects the governor will sign it.
He said it was to address “an extremely unreasonable approach.”
“I had parents calling and their son or daughter was caught with a beer but now was facing a criminal charge that was going to stick with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
He stressed that the new legislation does not change criminal charges related to drinking while under the influence. Minors who consume alcohol and drive can still face criminal prosecution. However, under the new legislation, the first time a minor is caught with alcohol, a civil citation, similar to traffic ticket, will be issued.
Under current law, a first offense for minor in possession, referred to as MIP, can result in a fine of $100, probation, alcohol treatment and the potential of time in jail. Subsequent offenses could lead to a $200 fine, and up to 30 days in jail, plus probation and alcohol treatment.
The new legislation could see a first-time offender face a $100 fine and alcohol classes. A second offense could rack up a $200 fine and alcohol classes. A third charge would result in a criminal charge, still a misdemeanor.
East Lansing reported issuiing about 300 MIP charges so far this year.
Jones said there is a disparity among jurisdictions on how the law is enforced in courts.
He said in some jurisdictions, the accused would serve six months’ probation and receive some substance abuse programming. When that was complete, the charge would be removed from their record. But in other jurisdictions, minors were being put in jail for their first offense.
In addition to reducing the severity of the penalty for a first-time infraction, the legislation specifically allows a minor to decline a Breathalyzer test. Some minors have been arrested after such a test because the machine detected alcohol in their system, a violation of the law. Others have been arrested for refusing a Breathalyzer test, Jones said.
The Republican lawmaker said the change was part of a broader movement by Michigan’s elected officials to reduce criminal prosecution for nonviolent criminal offense.
“We don’t want to lock everybody up for everything,” he said.
Meadows praised the change, which he had advocated when he served in the Michigan House of Representatives.
“I never liked that we were writing misdemeanor tickets at the outset,” Meadows said. He noted the City Council just approved an ordinance decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the ordinance, adopted by City Council in October, an individual 21 and older can possess up to an ounce of marijuana and smoke it on private property. Those under 21 caught with pot would face a civil infraction with a $25 fine and a requirement they attend a substance abuse class.
Both moves, he said, rectify a poor public policy move.
“Law enforcement has a tendency to go after the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “Like the high school sophomore with a couple of joints. I’m not sure that’s good public policy.”
For his part, Jones, who opposed decriminalization of marijuana but does support medical marijuana, said he would favor a move to change possession of marijuana in small amounts to a civil infraction.
“It was common when I was a police officer, that if you caught someone with a baggie of pot, and they were polite, you’d wave it in the wind, dumping out the contents,” he said. “Then you’d say, don’t let me catch you doing it again.”