Casper City Council Eyes Possible Jail For Underage Drinking
People under 21 caught with alcoholic beverages could face jail time according to a proposed change to the minor-in-possession ordinance that received initial approval from Casper City Council on Tuesday.
Some background is necessary to understand the proposed change the council approved on first reading on a 7-2 vote.
Last year, the Wyoming Supreme Court declared municipal courts cannot impose probation when the only penalty for an offense is a fine. The case -- City of Casper v. Shaina Simonson -- was brought by the city after the state district court ruled the city's municipal court illegally imposed a probationary sentence. The high court affirmed the district court's ruling. Dallas Laird represented Simonson before his appointment to City Council.
The Supreme Court said a municipal court cannot place a defendant only on probation for an offense that has not been made punishable by a jail or prison sentence.
So without the possibility of probation, the municipal court can only impose a fine. But to have probation, a potential jail sentence needed to be added to the ordinance.
City council had talked about the issue, and some members said a fine alone may not be enough of a punishment, or not enough encouragement to get help for problem drinking, according to a memo from City Attorney John Henley to City Manager Carter Napier.
So the proposed change the ordinance includes this language: "... adding incarceration as a potential penalty will allow the Casper Municipal Court to impose probation and the conditions thereof to address potential drinking problems of youthful offenders."
Tuesday, Chris Walsh said the proposed change would allow a municipal court judge the option of probation and rehabilitation for some offenders.
But Laird objected, saying the city has not studied how much this may cost.
Someone who has been charged with an offense with a potential jail sentence -- probation itself is a form of incarceration -- has a right to an attorney, and many underage offenders would not have the money to hire an attorney, he said. So the city would have to pay for that.
Likewise, a person charged with an offense with a possible jail sentence has the right to jury trial, which would cost even more, Laird said.
He later unsuccessfully moved to table the proposed change to the ordinance.
Charlie Powell responded that just writing a check to pay a fine doesn't change behavior, so the possibility of probation could offer counseling.
Jesse Morgan agreed with Walsh, saying the proposed change would give judges more tools to address problem drinking. Morgan added that judges rarely put a minor in jail for drinking beer.
After other discussion, Laird said no one mentioned the cost problem. If a minor offender's case is bad enough, a municipal court judge could move the case to state district court, he added.
Mike Huber, a former circuit court judge, said in his experience most young people want to put their arrest behind them. A lot of ordinances have potential jail punishments but alleged offenders don't hire lawyers, Huber added.
Walsh responded to the cost issue by saying there are costs down the road if problem drinking isn't addressed early.
Shawn Johnson didn't like any of it, including the minimum drinking age of 21, he said.
"It should be 18," Johnson said. "If they can throw you a rifle and send you to fight somebody else's war, then you should be able to have a beer. So I don't support any ordinance involving any punishment for underage drinking."