Drinking a beer at 20 years old in surrounding counties will land you a ticket.
In Athens Clarke-County, you’ll land a ticket straight to jail.
Before 2006, Athens Clarke-County was just like any other county – people would be issued a citation for underage possession of alcohol.
But beginning in January 2006, anyone caught drinking alcohol before the age of 21 is fingerprinted and photographed in Clarke-County jail.
Christopher Adams, University alum and criminal defense attorney, said compared to neighboring jurisdictions, Clarke County stands alone.
“I practice all over North Georgia, and I can tell you I have never run into another county where that was the case,” Adams said. “That seems to be the policy in Clarke County – not anywhere else.”
A ‘different treatment’
In a survey of other jurisdictions, county officials told The Red & Black that underage drinking offenders are typically issued a citation and only taken to jail when the underage possession of alcohol charge is paired with other charges.
“It is more than likely that person would be written a ticket and released to their parents than taken to jail,” said Tracy Flanagan, Fulton County public affairs information officer.
Adams represents clients in counties such as Clarke, Oconee, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Walton, Barrow, Jackson, Rabun and Hall. He said none of the counties have an automatic go-to-jail policy.
“Not only do they issue citations but most counties will allow people to enter what is called a diversion program, where they can attend some educational classes, do community service and pay some fees,” Adams said. “Then the charges would actually be dismissed and it wouldn’t appear on the person’s criminal history at all. That means someone could be charged over in Oconee County right next door and get a completely different treatment.”
Beginning in 2006, University Police began taking students to jail solely on an underage possession of alcohol charge rather than issuing a citation for the offense.
But the reality of spending the night in jail isn’t necessarily stopping students from downing tequila shots before they’re legally allowed.
“I don’t think it’s been particularly effective if the purpose has been to deter the offenses because the number of these cases has gone up significantly,” Adams said. “Perhaps something else is driving it.”
Factor 1: The revenue
And something else could be driving it – something monetary.
John G. Breakfield, attorney at Breakfield and Associates, said generating revenue could be a contributing factor.
“I went to college 20 years ago and I think in the last 10 years the enforcement has really gone up,” Breakfield said. “I’m not sure if it’s because of a concern about underage drinking or a revenue-type issue.”
More recently, court fees have increased and the fees associated with attorneys have also risen.
“For the most part when I was in college, administrators and cops would look the other way,” Breakfield said. “But now, it could potentially be a revenue stream. When the economy gets tougher, there are more arrests and citations that seem to be issued than there were before.”
Factor 2: The internal pressure
But it’s not just the police that cracks down on underage drinkers.
The significant role the University plays in Clarke County affairs could matter as well.
“I think that when the Princeton Review came out with the No. 1 party school title, we saw a direct correlation between that article and the number of arrests in Clarke County and the severity of the punishments immediately,” Adams said. “We didn’t get the same kind of blowback in the surrounding counties, so I can’t think of any reason as to why the punishments were much more severe in Clarke County as opposed to the other counties except for the fact that they weren’t proud of it.”
But Clarke County has a close and dependent relationship with the University.
The Georgia Tech administration would not be as influential on the Fulton County Police, for instance.
“A lot of it has to do with publicity,” Breakfield said. “I would imagine the administration wants to crack down on underage drinking. When you have UGA being named the top party school or football players getting arrested, there may be an internal pressure to do something about it whereas Atlanta has better things to do as far as crime goes.”
A different time
But students didn’t always live in fear that they would be taken to jail for having a beer downtown.
Prior to founding a law firm, Adams was a University business undergraduate and then came back to attend the UGA School of Law.
Back then, going to jail for underage possession of alcohol was unheard of.
“I never heard of anything being issued other than a citation if that was the case,” Adams said. “If it was just an underage possession, it went anywhere from a citation down to a warning. When I came through, people were mostly given warnings than citations, to be quite honest with you.”
Now, University students face the reality of having a criminal record before they even leave college.
“I haven’t read anything or gotten word of any other locations that they’re handling it the way Clarke County does,” he said. “I just don’t see the necessity in treating people differently than in other counties. And it’s something that can directly affect people’s ability in going to graduate school, law school and future employment.”
Students at the University are fingerprinted and photographed for the same offense that Georgia Tech or Georgia State students can get out of by paying a citation.
“It seems like it’s turned into more of a bureaucratic-type policy where everybody’s gotta be punished for it, whereas some kids who aren’t causing serious trouble are also punished,” Breakfield said. “If jurisdictions just give a citation and don’t arrest someone, they might be doing the kid a favor because it would be easier to hide some of that information and not have it show up on records later on.”
Though numerous University students land in the Clarke County jail for underage drinking nearly every weekend, that is not the norm for students in the rest of the state.
“I don’t suggest that authorities simply act as if it didn’t happen,” Adams said. “I just think it’s really unfortunate that UGA students can be branded with that permanent scarlet letter for something that they won’t be punished for as severely in other counties.”