Underage drinking can carry penalties at both the University and the state level — the threat of the dreaded “drinking ticket” has haunted students at parties and in dorms for decades.
But UNC students have access to several resources that can prevent their citation punishment from spiraling into an unmanageable experience.
Tristan Routh, an attorney who works for the nonprofit Carolina Student Legal Services, said from his experience, the vast majority of first-time offenders won’t be convicted in an underage drinking case.
“If a student gets charged with an alcohol offense, they do not have to immediately rush out there and spend $500 on an attorney,” Routh said. “They can go in on their own very easily and just ask for a deferred prosecution agreement.”
Deferred prosecution agreements are contracts between a defendant and the court outlining specific steps that must be taken in order to avoid a conviction. In underage alcohol possession cases, Routh said defendants typically have six months to complete 24 to 48 hours of community service and an alcohol education course.
Once the requirements are fulfilled, the charges are dismissed. Routh said that typical court fees and education course fees mean that a student representing themselves can resolve their case for around $400, typically paying about $180 in court fees and $250 in education course.
"It is extremely easy to get a deferred prosecution agreement," Routh said. "You pretty much automatically qualify as long as you've never been charged criminally before.”
The final step in a dismissed case is to have the charge expunged, or removed from one’s criminal record. Routh’s office can complete this process for free, he said, adding that his door is open to any student seeking legal advice as long as they’ve paid their student activity fee.
"We probably see more people with fake IDs than any other alcohol-related offense," he said. "There (are) plenty of people that get busted for walking down the street with a beer in their hand, or a cop will walk into a party or something like that and give out drinking citations, but we just don't see a whole lot of that.”
Carolina Student Legal Services, which can provide legal advice but cannot represent students in court, is located on the third floor of the Student Union annex. In cases where a deferred prosecution agreement is not an option — which is almost always the case for repeat offenders — students may wish to consult an outside attorney.
One of the most popular alcohol education courses for UNC students with underage drinking citations is Carpe Diem, a six-week, 15-hour course based in Chapel Hill. Trish Halsey, the program’s director, said that her organization was far more concerned with equipping students to make healthy choices than in harsh punishment.
“We're not a 'don't ever drink again' program," Halsey said. "We obviously talk about alcohol a lot, but our goal is for students just to have a chance to step back and look at their total college experience and take inventory.”
Halsey said that 80 percent of Carpe Diem enrollees reported in exit surveys they had gained new knowledge through the course.
Though she called the University’s disciplinary procedures for underage drinking “completely distinct and separate from a student's individual court process,” Amy Holway of the Office of Student Conduct said.
“We are an educational institution, and so in general, when we respond to students, the primary goal is education outcomes," Holway said. "Ideally, students have this experience and then walk away having learned something."
Some students say this approach might not be an effective deterrent to underage drinking. Jessica, a UNC junior who is only using her first name to avoid legal repercussions, said she continues to drink at events near campus despite having received an underage drinking citation in the past.
"As college-age students, we don't really take it that seriously until it actually happens to somebody or something tragic happens from drinking," she said. "It's going to happen regardless of what they do."
She said her time in a course similar to Carpe Diem in high school was “informative,” but it had not affected her decision-making.
"I don't think if you get a drinking ticket, you're a bad person,” she said. “You just happened to be one of the people out of the hundreds of thousands of people who drink underage that got caught."
Halsey noted that the 98 students her program saw in the 2017-18 academic year did not represent the total number of citations at UNC last year, but the University’s annual Clery Act reports give information about those who were referred to University disciplinary procedures in a given year. According to the recently released 2018 report, there were 561 liquor law disciplinary referrals on campus in 2017, including 551 referrals in on-campus residence halls.
These numbers represent the number of students who were directed by campus housing officials or UNC Police officers to the Office of Student Affairs to begin a university disciplinary process.
The University’s alcohol policy, which was relaunched in 2016, requires offending students to complete at least one meeting with Student Conduct personnel to discuss whether or not their case represents a violation. The purpose of this initial meeting, Holway said, is to gain the student’s perspective on the reported incident, determine whether a violation occurred and review possible ways to proceed. In cases where there is a policy violation and a further administrative hearing is deemed necessary, sanctions can range from a written warning to disciplinary probation and suspension, though the latter two outcomes are rare.
In general, the relaunched alcohol policy prioritizes education and growth over punishment. Offending students are typically referred to an educational course like AlcoholEdu, a three-hour Decisions workshop or a Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students course.
Holway agreed the students she has dealt with have responded well to this education-based approach.
“The general feeling I get from students is that they appreciate when they are leaving my office that this is not an adversarial process,” she said. “The University is not looking for students to get in trouble."
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