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Urbana police stop giving out fines for underage drinking at bars during pandemic

Erica Floss-Becker / For CU-CitizenAccess

Like the City of Champaign, Urbana issued no underage drinking citations or made any arrests last year through November 2021, according to police data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Urbana, the legal age to enter a bar is 18, but in the state of Illinois the legal drinking age is 21. In Champaign, 19- and 20-year-olds can enter Campustown bars, but are not permitted to drink. 

Citing police staff shortages and priorities for more serious crimes, Mayor and Liquor Control Commissioner Diane Marlin explained that the year of 2021 and any other year are incomparable because of the pandemic, but that the lack of arrests and citations could be a law enforcement issue.

“I don’t know whether people are drinking less or using fake IDs less or it’s a question of enforcement,” she said. 

Even before the pandemic, the numbers were on a decline since 2015. Citations and arrests declined from about 45 in 2015 to 4 in 2020, and none in 2021.

All those subject to underage drinking can be subject to a fine of up to $500, according to the City of Urbana Code of Ordinances.

Chapter 3 of The City of Urbana Code was revised in 2019, which contains provisions surrounding alcoholic liquors in relation to minors and the licensing process in Urbana. The city council approved these changes in February of 2020. 

Marlin explained that there were no changes made with respect to underage drinking in the 2020 revision. 

“Mainly the revision of the liquor code was to make it work better for the business environment today, but we still have age requirements in place,” Marlin said. 

She said that police have other priorities right now regarding violence, crime and safety. 

“I think the police have focused on the priorities in the community and at this point it’s not underage drinking,” Marlin said.

Urbana Deputy Chief of Police Rich Surles explained that underage drinking laws are enforced when encountered, but his priorities align with Marlin’s statement suggesting the police force has other priorities. 

“The question is what are the priorities based on the limitations of the department,” he said. “There are more pressing issues related to community violence than underage drinking, but we will enforce underage drinking laws when we encounter them.” 

Surles explained that there has been an increase in gun violence that can be seen since 2017.

“The police department has always had to contend with the response and investigation of violent crime,” he said. ”The most significant increase in violent crime has been related to shooting violence,” which increased from 53 in 2020 to 115 in 2021, compared with just 17 in 2017.

Given there are more significant priorities within the Urbana police agendas, Marlin attributes the lack of citations and arrests to the crowd that Urbana bars attract and the bar management. 

“The bars we do have tend to attract an older crowd,” she said. “I also have to think that the bar and restaurant owners are responsible too. They’re keeping track of who they serve.”

Carrie Hinkle, Rose Bowl Tavern bar manager, confirmed that, in 2021, there had been no instances of police involvement due to underage drinking or use of fake IDs within the bar. 

“We have had a couple of kids try to buy drinks for their friends and then we just throw the whole party out of here and tell them they can’t be here tonight,” she said. 

There is also a bar protocol that is strictly followed. 

“We won’t serve anybody unless they have a wristband or have the cues that we’re looking for,” Hinkle said. 

From 2015 until 2017, there were two citation fines dismissed, but starting in 2018 through 2020, 25 citation fines were dismissed according to court settlement documents. Data indicates that there was one citation attempt in 2021, which ended up being dismissed. 

“There are two types of enforcement action that police in Champaign-Urbana take,” Surles said.  “The first is city ordinance violations.The second is state law violations. City ordinance violations typically come with a fine and do not have jail time attached. State law violations can have jail time and/or fines attached.”

Surles said underage drinking is typically addressed through city ordinance citations. Additionally, Surles explained that the frequency of officers entering drinking establishments for underage drinking has decreased over the years. 

“I would say that the frequency has decreased over the years,” he said. “Some of that has been driven by the need for our police officers to engage in other activities and some of it is driven by fewer people drinking underage in drinking establishments.” 

While there could have been fewer underage drinkers in bars, alcohol sales were increasing according to Mayor Marlin, who explained that Urbana’s city revenue was not impacted by these lack of citations and arrests in recent years, especially during and after the pandemic.  

“I think alcohol sales were very strong in Urbana, it’s just where they were drinking that alcohol had changed,” she said. “I doubt if underage drinking actually decreased, but I think it probably went into homes and apartments, rather than bars and restaurants.”

Erica Floss-Becker / For CU-CitizenAccess

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