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City Council agrees to consider reducing 21-only fine

BY EMILY HOERNER | APRIL 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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More than half of Iowa City city councilors on Monday night said they might support lowering the hefty fines doled out to underage patrons found in a bar after 10 p.m., and they agreed to vote on the issue this summer.

The councilors discussed reducing the fine — $500 plus an additional $235 in fees — during their work session; University of Iowa Student Government liaison to the council Elliot Higgins had submitted a letter last week with ideas to reduce the amount of money associated with defying the 21-ordinance.

Councilors Regenia Bailey, Connie Champion, Ross Wilburn, and Mike Wright expressed some interest in lowering the fines and fees. Being underage in a bar after hours comes with the $735 ticket, and if the minor is drinking, he or she could rack up another $365 in fines.

“It’s a lot of money,” Champion said. “Especially when you add all the other [potential charges] into it.”

Councilors agreed Monday to pursue a tiered system and placed the amendment on their July 1 agenda.

Under the proposal, minors would face a $300 fine for their first offense. With the $235 in fee addition, the total amount of a first ticket would total $535.

But if someone broke the law a second time, he or she would get the same $735 ticket currently in place. A third violation could total more than $900.

“I would be willing to lower it some, not a huge amount,” Wright said. “If we’re going to graduate it, I would like the second fine to be just vicious.”

One civil-rights expert in the state said the current $735 ticket is excessive and could be unconstitutional.

Ben Stone, the executive director of the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union, said the harm of someone being in a bar compared with the penalty is “grossly disproportionate.”

“I’ve never heard of anything that large before or that extraordinary,” he said. “It appears to be monstrously over-the-top.”

Higgins praised the council’s decision to pursue lesser fines, saying after the meeting that he is “ecstatic.”

“I’m thrilled that the council was responsive to the concerns I raised,” said Higgins, who is also the lone candidate running for UI Student Government president for the 2011-12 school year.

At the work session, he told councilors the fines should change because the financial burden is severe and harsh in comparison with other fines the city doles out — especially for students who are overwhelmed with tuition and fees.

“People make mistakes,” Higgins told the council on Monday.

The $315 fine for underage possession of alcohol in Iowa City is comparable with the home cities of Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa — a first offense costs $330 in Ames and Cedar Falls.

But the $100 fine for presence in a bar underage in Ames is much less than the $735 ticket in Iowa City. Cedar Falls doesn’t follow a 21-ordinance.

But Bailey said it’s important to remember the original intent of the $500 fine — to “deter” a student population that had been used to going to the bars from breaking the new 21-only law.

“I think we have to send a consistent message,” she said. “I think that is fundamentally important.”


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