Patch sat down with Reading Police Chief James Cormier last week so he could answer some questions about the new zero tolerance policy that the department implemented due to ongoing issues with underage drinking.
On Sept. 2, according to Reading Police, officers reported to a house party were over 40 youths were present without adult supervision. As a result of the party, 38 minors were charged with possession of alcohol and one youth was charged with furnishing alcohol to minors, police said.
After that incident, Reading Police decided to implement a zero tolerance policy regarding cases that involve underage drinking. The policy requires that any person under the age of 21 caught in possession of any amount of alcohol will be charged with minor in possession of alcohol.
To further explain the policy, Cormier stated that "the zero tolerance policy that we are referring to is an internal policy within the police department. It's for our police officers."
He went on to say that the policy is for the police officers to understand that "when they interact with anyone under the age of 21 who is in possession of alcoholic beverages, we want them to then be put into the system, if you will. We want them to be charged with the crime of a minor in possession of alcohol."
However, after they are initially put into the system, whether there was a complaint form filled out or they were arrested and if the minor has a clean record, they may be offered a court diversion. The diversion is for first time offenders and will keep the charges from appearing on the person's record, if they do what is asked of them. They may have to attend a class on alcohol or drugs or something similar and obey their home rules. They may also be asked to complete community service and sign an agreement stating that the person will not "get in trouble again" for a period of time. These steps or "court diversion" will happen before the person would ever go to an arraignment, according to Cormier.
Although, if the person did not comply with the agreement and did not complete the class or community service then he or she will have an arraignment and be formally charged.
The law of possession of alcohol also includes constructive possession, which means that minors can be charged even if they are not physically holding alcohol. For example, if four minors are in a vehicle and a 30-pack of beer is found on their rear seat, all four could be charged with being in possession of the beer, according to Cormier. In the same scenario, if only one can is found under the passengers seat, only the passenger would be charged.
If reporting to a house party, police will carry portable breathalyzer tests for young adults to take. If they blow a 0.0, they will not be charged as a minor in possession of alcohol unless there is an exception. An exception would be if an officer sees a minor in direct possession of alcohol; just because the person hasn't had a sip yet does not mean he or she will not be charged.
Also, if there are other things happening, such as trespassing or creating a disturbance for example, it doesn't mean that there won't be other charges, Cormier said. Every situation is different.
"We're hoping to find that happy medium where we can accommodate the needs of the young adults who are trying to do the right thing," he said.
The difference between zero tolerance and the previous policy
The difference with the new policy is that the situation is "dealt with in a legal manner as opposed to the police officer not letting it show up on your record because he doesn't take action," the police chief said.
He went on to say that in the past a police officer may have given you a "stern talking to and finger wagging and sent you on your way, but that isn't proving to be effective in what we are trying to accomplish with the underage drinking issue in our town."
Two of the department's biggest concerns: driving while intoxicated and alcohol being a gateway to more serious substance abuse issues.
"Our goal is to get some education done and let these young adults know that underage drinking has some really serious, potentially bad consequences associated with it," Cormier said.
To learn more about preventing substance abuse, visit the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse Edline page.