A Republican-sponsored bill introduced Thursday would allow bars and other alcohol vendors to sue underage patrons on their premises in an effort to reduce the number of underage drinkers at bars and target the state’s “drinking culture.”
The bill would allow bars to sue underage drinkers for $1,000 plus other legal fees. The bill’s author, Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, said such a bill would reduce underage drinkers at bars but also help protect bars that let them in unknowingly.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the state Senate, echoed the sentiment.
“The fact of the matter is, we have a drinking culture in this state,” Kedzie said. “This won’t stop somebody from drinking off premises in a dorm room or a house, but if they try to go out and defraud a legal operator, there are consequences.”
Underage people in bars can currently only face penalties from police, with fines anywhere between $250 and $1,000, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis. As those with fewer offenses often pay less in fines, Kedzie characterized the current law as a “slap on the wrist.”
The new bill, however, would let bars charge underage patrons $1,000 plus legal fees if they win in court, regardless of whether police cited the individual with an underage violation. If the person is under 18, bars would be able to sue the parent or legal guardian.
Bar owners would remain responsible for ensuring they only let in 21-year-olds and older, Kedzie said. According to the bureau, bars can currently defend themselves if someone younger lies about their age or shows a fake identification card.
“There’s still responsibility [for bars] to do their best to determine when people are presenting false IDs and not letting people go past,” Kedzie said.
After working with Green Bay police, Jacque introduced a similar bill last session that got a public hearing but was not voted on in the committee. He said he has talked to the committee chair and expects to have a hearing on the bill in about a month.
However, according to Julia Sherman, alcohol policy project coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving, this bill would do nothing to curb underage drinking. Instead, she said an appropriate way to address underage drinking would be to increase age checks and train staff to recognize fake IDs.
“This bill is not a deterrent at all,” Sherman said. “It will have no impact. We know what activities have an impact on underage drinking. They’ve been well proven and documented. Alcohol age compliance checks work…However, retailers don’t like them.”
Although Jacque said a similar law in Alaska has been effective, Sherman said Alaska’s decrease in underage drinking is likely due to a nationwide trend of decreasing underage drinking rates.
Associated Students of Madison Chair Andrew Bulovksy said in a statement the bill would add to the already heavy repercussions underage drinkers face, such as fines or university consequences. ASM will lobby against the bill, he said.
“While we understand and appreciate the importance of preventing underage students from having access to alcohol, this bill is overly punitive,” Bulovsky said. “It serves only to harm students and is unnecessary at best.”
Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, called the bill a “horrible idea” and said bars would not likely use the proposed law much. He said bars might use the policy if they are fined for having large amounts of underage people but would likely not use it otherwise.
Rachel Lepak, ASM’s representative on the City of Madison’s Alcohol License Review Committee, said the bill would serve to keep underage drinkers in unregulated house parties. She also said it would reduce responsibility for bar owners.
“I think it’s a little bit ridiculous to sue students, especially when it would be on the error of the bar for not recognizing a fake ID,” Lepak said.