Police raise objections to underage drinking billUniversity of Wisconsin students and administrators are expected to testify in support of a measure designed to offer protection to underage drinkers who need emergency help.
By: By Scott Bauer, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MADISON — University of Wisconsin students told lawmakers Thursday that changing the law to give underage drinkers some protections from penalties would increase the number of emergencies that get reported, but police said they were leery of restrictions on enforcement efforts.
Given that opposition as well as unease expressed by the chairman of the Assembly's colleges and universities committee, the bipartisan bill faces an uphill battle in the Legislature.
The proposal would give some immunity to underage drinkers who seek and obtain emergency assistance for themselves and others. The goal, supporters said Thursday, is to make sure underage drinkers aren't afraid to report a sexual assault or other violent crime or to seek emergency medical help just because they are breaking the law themselves by consuming alcohol.
"We all understand our Wisconsin culture appreciates beer and alcohol and our underage youth often do not wait to be of age to consume," said the bill's Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Joan Ballweg, of Markesan.
"We're looking at asking young people, although they made a bad choice to drink underage, to make a responsible choice to help someone that's in need," she said.
The protection covers anyone seeking emergency help or wanting to report a crime. The underage person must remain at the scene and cooperate with police and emergency responders.
Those who meet the requirements would not be subject to disciplinary actions from UW or citations from police for their own alcohol consumption.
But the chiefs of police from two campuses, Madison and Whitewater, said they were concerned they would lose discretion to deal with drunken students. Police need a lot of leeway when responding, something the proposed law does not offer, said UW-Whitewater police chief Matthew Kiederlen.
"I always worry when you're telling officers specifically what they have to do in a specific situation because there are so many variables," Kiederlen said.
UW-Madison police chief Susan Riseling said their practice already is to not cite someone who is a Good Samaritan calling in an emergency, but giving absolute immunity can be counterproductive in some cases.
"The intention of the bill is absolutely right on," she said. "The method by which we get there is something we disagree with."
Committee chairman Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said he was concerned the bill gave students a "free pass." He also said he didn't think local police departments were aware of the bill or what it would do.
One of the several student supporters, UW-Stevens Point senior Sarah McQueen, said underage drinkers are leery of reporting problems for fear of getting busted.
"I believe this bill will help encourage students to call for themselves when they're not doing that now," she said.
The proposal is endorsed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin, United Council of UW Students, and Associated Students of Madison. The Senate co-sponsor is Democratic Sen. Fred Risser, whose district includes UW-Madison.
A Senate hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28.