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Underage drinking targeted by police
Shown at Tuesdayâ€™s press conference, held to announce that police are targeting underage drinking, are (from left) Katie Connelly, CHILL/HEY coordinator, community organizer with Piedmont Community Services; Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry; Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers; and Special Agent Jay Engstrom of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. (Bulletin photo)
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
The Henry County Sheriff's Office, Martinsville Police Department and state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) are teaming up to crack down on underage drinking in hopes of changing and saving lives.
"We are stepping up our efforts to pursue underage drinking and the people who are providing the alcohol," Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said Tuesday during a news conference at the Henry County Administration Building.
Legislators have stepped up as well. The penalties for underage driving under the influence mirror those for underage consumption or possession in Virginia, and those charges are now class one misdemeanors, Perry said. Before, they were class two misdemeanors, which carry a lesser penalty.
Anyone over age 21 who provides alcohol to someone under 21 also will be charged with a class one misdemeanor. Class one misdemeanors can result in fines of up to $2,500 and/or one year in jail and the loss of a driver's license for up to one year, according to Jay Engstrom, special agent with Virginia ABC.
These harsher penalties also will apply to so-called "social hosts," or adults whose actions - or failures to act - result in underage drinking, Perry said. He added that sometimes social hosts are parents.
"It's a wake-up call for parents to be responsible," the sheriff said. Parents need to tell their children that drinking "is not right; don't do it," he said.
New law enforcement efforts will include breaking up underage drinking parties in the community, Perry said. He and the others also said they would do more presentations in the schools to get their message out.
"We want you to have fun and enjoy life, but we want you to learn to enjoy life without alcohol," he said.
"We're not being bullies ... we're doing this for your benefit and the community's benefit," Engstrom said.
Engstrom mentioned a party earlier this summer at the Fireman's Cabin that was broken up by Engstrom and 39 officers from the county sheriff's office, city police department and Virginia State Police.
There were about 125 people at the party who ranged in age from about 13 to 19, Engstrom said. That "was a shocker to all of us," Engstrom said.
Numerous charges were filed against teens at that event.
Soon after the break-up of the party, local law enforcement officials got together and agreed they needed to join forces to "say enough is enough," Engstrom said.
Local police are using tough love with underage drinkers.
"We must let these kids go through the judicial system and find out what it's like and what your consequences will be," Engstrom said. "We're trying to change a life and possibly save a life."�
The message from local law enforcement to youth is to "stay focused on your future and take care of yourself to be successful in life," said Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers.
Rogers stressed the importance these efforts have on limiting drunken driving, which can lead to fatalities.
In 2007, an estimated 44 traffic fatalities and 1,900 nonfatal traffic injuries involved underage drunken drivers in Virginia, Rogers said.
"When you talk about numbers, that's one thing, but when you put a name and a face to a number ... it drives home the point," he said.
Underage drinking also is costly to residents.
In the state of Virginia, underage drinking cost citizens $1.3 billion in 2007. The total is a combination of the costs of pain and suffering, medical care and work lost, according to Katie Connelly, community organizer for prevention at Piedmont Community Services.
Connelly works with CHILL (Communities Helping Improve Local Lives), a group of teenagers who work to discourage their peers from drinking and using drugs.