The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Stakeout targets underagers

It’s common to be pulled over while driving for a burnt-out headlight or the lack of use of a turn signal. But recently, the Eau Claire Sheriff’s Department has been staking out the Liquor Mart on the corner of Clairemont Avenue and Patton Street and pulling cars over based on the age appearance of the driver.

These stakeouts are in hopes of finding and ticketing persons under 21 years old who are transporting alcohol in their vehicle, a practice that is illegal in the state of Wisconsin.

“It’s against the law for anyone underage to be in a motor vehicle that is transporting alcohol,” said campus attorney Harry Hertel. “That includes anywhere in the vehicle including the trunk; the law doesn’t provide that for an exception.”

The Eau Claire Sheriff’s Department is enforcing this rule.

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“Our agency believes that if there are (underage passengers) in the vehicle, then alcohol should not be transported in the vehicle,” said Field Services Captain Dan Bresina of the Eau Claire Sheriff’s Department.

Typically, Hertel said, the deputy waits outside the Liquor Mart for suspicious action to occur.

“It’s a true stakeout. He’s parked somewhere, and then watches the person come out,” Hertel said, adding that the deputy pulls over the car once the driver has begun driving.

Underage drivers receive citations for $263.50, the full cost of an underage drinking citation, regardless of whether or not they have been drinking.

Hertel estimates that possibly 20 to 30 people have been stopped and ticketed like this each month for the past year and a half and has kept records of this type of occurrence since September 2010, adding that he receives a case like this about once every three weeks.

“I do not know the outcome of any of those where I’ve encouraged the district attorney’s office to drop the charges,” Hertel said.

While the goal of working to eliminate underage drinking is agreed upon, the manner in which it is being done is controversial to some.

“It seems outrageous that there’s an effort being made to corral them if it’s simply because they look young,” Hertel said. “It shouldn’t be based on appearance, it should be based on hard facts.”

Hertel said he would like to see law enforcement engaged in affirmative action, “making sure people don’t break the law, rather than wait until they possibly do and then pulling them over to find out whether or not their hunch is correct.”

Bresina said the Sheriff’s Department does take affirmative action in cutting down on underage drinking in Eau Claire.

“For example, we may go to the bars and check the licenses of the establishment to make sure they’re all valid,” Bresina said. “If a specific store is selling and they’re not checking IDs, that spreads about pretty fast, so they’ll maybe continue doing that until we … ask them not to do that anymore.”

Age is a factor in these checks.

“We do spot checks from time to time to make sure there’s no one underage at an establishment,” Bresina said. “Some people look really young and are valid; some people look older that are not 21 years of age.”

Other community organizations are also active in deterring underage drinking. Through the health department, the Reality Check 21 Partnership is an alliance dedicated to reducing underage drinking in the county, according to Francie Peardon, Community Advocacy Director of the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.

“The kind of strategies we have in place are environmental, evidence-based strategies,” Peardon said.

The group performs compliance checks and provides education for staff members working at locations at which alcohol is sold. “We try to work with reducing access, not just retail access but social access,” said Peardon, “We work with festivals, parents, businesses, and community organizations.”

Still, Hertel said, pulling over a driver based on age appearance remains an issue. Age alone doesn’t substantiate reasonable grounds for stopping a vehicle.

“It may be legal to watch people in that situation, but I seriously question if it’s legal to pull them over just because of how they look, in terms of their age.”

Hertel added that the deputy commonly may have another reason, like a minor traffic violation, to justify pulling the car over and then arrests for alcohol.

“If they have no proof that anybody’s breaking the law, there’s no statute that people need to identify themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to produce your driver’s license unless you’re the driver.”

“(The tickets) might be nice for the economy of the city or county but it’s not very nice for the students attending Eau Claire … There will be some resentment for being treated like that because they look young.” Hertel added that in some cases, students pulled over for looking young were actually of legal age or older.

Hertel hopes that students realize that being underage and driving a car where alcohol is present is an illegal practice.

“There are certainly other offenses and other criminals in the community,” Hertel said, “who could get the attention of law enforcement.”

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Stakeout targets underagers