A group of college students play jenga and drink beer

The Drinking Age and Law Enforcement on College Campuses

When I was a senior in college, after having worked for the Cornell University Police Department for four years, I hosted a town hall meeting to promote and improve the Blue Light Escort Service, a service which most colleges have to give students safe, free late-night walks home by law enforcement or affiliated personnel.

One of the key takeaways of the meeting, as I knew it would be, was that many students were unsure of the relationship of the escort service to enforcement of underage drinking laws: they were scared that if they were drunk underage and called for an escort, they would get in trouble.

This post is, in a sense, about a narrow issue: the effect of the national minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 on campus law enforcement. More broadly, however, it’s about a specific and often overlooked result of a legal framework that ostensibly-but-not-really makes criminals of the hundreds of thousands of college students who live on their own and are legally considered to be adults, for behavior that virtually all other adults engage in with laws that are virtually but not entirely unenforced.

It’s kind of a weird thing, if you think about it.

My argument is that the MLDA of 21, rather than the more traditional and globally accepted younger alternatives, inhibits campus law enforcement by making it more difficult for the police to build and maintain the community relationships that make good law enforcement possible. Indeed, by asserting a MLDA several years out of touch with broadly held social views of the acceptability of collegiate drinking, the U.S. has ensured a deep rift between campus police departments and the student populations they serve.

Everyone knows that college students drink alcohol.

It’s all over our media, winked at by Resident Advisors (RAs) when they don’t participate, and it’s what alumni mean when they talk about the best years of their lives. If we, as a society, are serious about eliminating alcohol on college campuses, we’re doing a terrible job. We’re not even really trying. Campus police officers, obviously, know this.

They also know, from years of experience, that most of the time, for most people, college drinking is no more harmful than a hangover. But campus police officers also take a solemn oath to enforce underage drinking laws along with the rest of them. Some states have legislative enforcement carve-outs for medical emergencies, but that does nothing to mitigate the persistent tension in the ordinary run of collegiate partying. The result, then, is a kind of civic compromise: students don’t drink in front of police officers, they don’t tell police officers that they’re about to go drink underage, and police officers don’t make small talk with too many specifics about your Friday night.

The problem is that this compromise is sustained by a code of silence, an active avoidance by both groups of talking about something that they both know is, for better or worse, a large part of what is happening in the community. You may recognize that as a terrible way to build community-law enforcement relationships. And in my experience, both the student body and the police department largely no longer even bother trying. What this means at the end of the day is that when something serious does happen, when someone really gets hurt, the police don’t know anyone to talk to, and students don’t feel comfortable coming forward.

Moreover, the unique role that police officers are supposed to play on campus requires an especially high level of predicate trust between the student body and the police department. Sexual assault, a notoriously common and difficult to prosecute crime on campuses, is even more difficult to prosecute where a victim simply does not know anything about the campus police and whether they will take issue with the fact that she was drinking and underage the night of the attack, or where the police have no idea who was at the party or how to find that out. All the best ways for police to help prevent suicides depend on people reporting themselves or their friends as potentially suicidal. That’s a lot more likely to happen if students are comfortable with the police.

Finally, a legal system that almost inevitably makes campus police a threat undermines their basic campus role: simply helping people from all over the world, many of whom are living away from home for the first time, feel safe as they go about their messy, complicated, collegiate social lives, learn, and grow up.

I would like to make two final clarifications.

The first is that I am not yet advocating for any specific policy, such as the decriminalization of alcohol for people over 18, if this were even possible. There is certainly literature that finds measurable public health benefits of the current drinking age (but it is worth pointing out that these findings are vigorously contested). Moreover, there’s no doubt that the decline in drinking and driving has been one of the great public health triumphs of the past 50 years and that raising the drinking age probably played some role in that achievement. It may well be that the public health benefits of America’s higher drinking age outweigh any deleterious effects it has on campus law enforcement or otherwise.

Second, as with any argument from personal experience, I don’t actually know if I’m right.

My view is based on a very specific role that I had at a very specific college, as both a student and employee of the police department. There may be law enforcement benefits that I did not realize or appreciate.

For these reasons, I hope this post serves to start a conversation rather than advocate a position. I would like to hear from campus police officers, students and educators about your experiences with alcohol, the legal drinking age, and law enforcement. I want to know if you agree that there is a problem here, and whether it might be one worth trying to solve.

James Toomey

James Toomey is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Prior to joining the faculty at Pace, James was a Climenko Fellow & Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His scholarly work has appeared in the Virginia Law Review, the North Carolina Law Review, the Harvard Journal on Legislation and more.

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