Addressing Community Perceptions Regarding Enforcement of Underage Drinking Laws

I was recently asked what I believe the Frenchtown Community’s perception is regarding the enforcement of underage drinking laws. The question is a good one but the answer is difficult without a study. I do think there are certain misconceptions about how the laws are enforced and these opinions are formed by the actions of the deputies that respond to the calls. I would first like to say that the Sheriff has a zero tolerance policy for underage drinking. With that said there is no enforcement discretion allowed for minors under the age of 18 when caught in possession of alcohol, they will be cited. For those between the ages of 18 and 21 some discretion is allowed but the preferred action is arrest or citation. Community members also need to realize that every call is different and each call has its own set of unique circumstances that affect the enforcement decisions made by deputies. The Sheriff’s Office is critically low in staffing as we have an average of 5 deputies working to cover all of the 2,600 miles of Missoula County per shift. Call volume and the availability of cover officers certainly influence enforcement decision to some degree. If one of our deputies is called to a typical house party there are between 10 and 15 participants at that event. An event of this size requires a minimum of two deputies and three are preferred. These calls can take about 2.5 hours to complete if everyone is cited and evidence is collected and preserved. That leaves 2 or 3 deputies to cover every other call that comes in during that period. In some of these instances deputies are required to leave to respond to higher priority calls which can results in some people receiving citations and other who do not. In yet other instances a citizen will call in a party at a certain location but they do not want to leave a name. Anonymous complaints have much less veracity as far as the courts are concerned and they are much more difficult for us to act on. In addition to this there are a variety of other legal implications that we have to consider which often times make it appear that we are not doing anything. In most cases it simply because we can’t. There are constitutional, privacy and search issues that we can not ignore. Ignoring these issues can cost the community huge sums of money in civil litigation. One other common misconception made by parents is that if they give their kids and their kid’s friends a safe place to drink by hosting a party and providing alcohol it is a responsible thing to do. This activity is illegal and the argument supporting it is not logical. Providing a harmful substance to an underage child especially one that is not your own, is not safe or responsible. Encouraging young people to break the law just because they don’t agree with it is also not a good example and is poor parenting. We don’t all have to agree with the laws as they exist but we are obligated to obey them. We encourage all parents to be their children’s parent and not their friends. Sometimes being the parent makes you unpopular and that just comes with the territory. In summary it is very difficult if not impossible to be 100% consistent in these calls. Each incident is a different call with its own set of circumstances. The Sheriff’s Office tries very hard to be fair and consistent but sometimes we fall short of that mark due to circumstances beyond our control. Curtailing underage drinking is an enforcement priority for us and we will continue to attempt to make a difference in Frenchtown and all of Missoula County through our enforcement efforts. Brad Giffin, Patrol Captain

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