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UI liaison asks City Council to reduce underage in bar fine

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | APRIL 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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One student advocate is asking the Iowa City City Council to consider reducing the hefty fine given to underage people found in bars after 10 p.m.

Elliot Higgins, the University of Iowa Student Government liaison to the City Council, said paying more than $1,000 in fines and fees for getting caught drinking underage in a bar after hours is too financially devastating for college students.

He submitted a letter to the council Thursday, asking the councilors to rethink the fines and fees, particularly the $735 charge for presence in a bar after hours.

Higgins said he is voicing the opinion of many UI students who feel the price is too high, adding he believes a smaller fee would send the same signal to potential underage bar patrons.

“As a class of people, college students are financially vulnerable, often living on fixed incomes and incurring a great deal of debt in an effort to gain an education and a better future,” Higgins said in the letter.

Higgins said he’d had the idea since voters upheld the 21-ordinance during the 2010 midterm elections, but wanted to wait until enough time had passed for people to discuss the issue rationally.

He said he and the council will discuss the matter during the April 4 work session.

City Councilor Mike Wright said he’s open to discussing to issue but thinks the fines are appropriate. He stressed the bottom line is students simply should not break the law — then they won’t get a fine.
And while the fines were set as a deterrence for underage drinking, Councilor Regenia Bailey said she is willing to examine whether they are having that effect.

“The question is who takes responsibility for one’s behavior? If you’re aware that you’re putting yourself in a potential risk-exposing situation by being in a location after a certain time, who’s responsible for that?” Bailey said. “Students can conduct themselves as responsible adults and take responsibility for their behavior.”

Since the 21 ordinance went into effect, many underage students have risked going to the bars, while others have told The Daily Iowan the fines are a big deterrence.

Fines for underage possession of alcohol are comparable in the cities that are the sites of Iowa’s three regent universities, with a first offense running $330 in Cedar Falls and Ames, $315 in Iowa City. But the fine for presence in a bar underage in Iowa City far exceeds what students would pay in Ames, where the ticket is $100. Cedar Falls doesn’t have a 21-ordinance.

In the letter, Higgins offered several alternatives, including establishing a graduated fine system, community service in place of monetary fines, and a requirement for bars to “vocally announce” when underage patrons have to leave at 10 p.m.

Though it may be helpful, Bailey said the final decision to leave the bar lies with those affected.
“Your cell phone has the time,” she said.

According to police reports, during the 201 bar checks conducted in the month of February, 24 people were charged with being in a bar underage, up from six in January.

“Clearly, we’re still finding people who are willing to go into bars and take a chance,” said Iowa City police Lt. Mike Brotherton, who serves as watch commander from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.


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