Citations for unlawful ID use by minors soars in Champaign after pandemic; underage drinking citations plummet

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Joe's Brewery on Google Street View. Screenshot taken on August 23, 2023.

About five times the number of 19- and 20-year-olds have been arrested or fined for unlawful use of ID in the first seven months of this year than the last two years combined in Champaign, data shows.

Only two were arrested in 2021 and 25 in 2022 — but the number soared to 133 by just August 7 this year according to Champaign Police Department data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. Arrest information on those aged 18 or younger was not released. 

“Virtually all of the cases originated from a bar or liquor store,” Champaign Police Officer Daniel Ward said.

Ordinance violations are listed alongside arrests for criminal actions in the data provided, but it doesn’t always mean the arrestee was taken to jail. Violating an ordinance in Champaign carries a fine.

The minimum fine for violating the unlawful use of ID ordinance, part of the liquor-related ordinances, is $350. Last year, at least $8,750 would have been collected if all the fines were paid. This year, so far, at least $46,550 would be collected.

Ward said the COVID-19 pandemic is important to consider regarding the increase, as prior to it “there were an average of 150 ID cases per year,” and rates of fake ID use started to rise following the reopening of the economy. But he said it wasn’t the sole cause.

“There are additional factors that led to a delay in processing ID cases, including concerns related to staffing at the Champaign Police Department. As our staffing has improved, we have worked to clear a backlog, which leads to an uneven look at the statistics from last year to the current year,” Ward said in an email. “Furthermore, bars are starting to improve their ID screening process to include new technology that assists in determining if an ID is real or fake.”

Overall, data shows there have been 542 arrests for unlawful use of ID since January 1, 2021, and 160 were aged 19 or 20, about 21%. The majority of the 160 were arrested or fined this year, about 83%.

But only three arrests were listed at a bar, The Red Lion on Green Street, in the data provided. One was listed at the address for Shawarma Joint on East University. All 538 other arrests had a location of the police department at 82 E University Avenue or the nearby intersection of University Avenue and First Street because that is where the citations are issued and the IDs are processed. No other information was provided on where the unlawful use of ID is actually occurring in Champaign.

Ward said bar staff are required to train to identify and seize unlawfully used identification in Champaign, and learn to spot if someone is using another person’s valid ID. Upon doing so, the IDs are turned over to the police department and result in a city ordinance violation, which is a civil action and not a criminal action.

There are multiple bars in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campustown, for example: The Red Lion, Joe’s Brewery, KAMS, Green Street Cafe, Illini Inn and Murphy’s Pub. Three of them are located on Green Street. Each is a popular spot for students to enjoy a night of drinking, even underage drinking some claim, as the legal age to enter any campus bar is 19. 

Once inside the bar, some patrons claim there are little to no ID checks when buying drinks. Even the bartenders can be underage, themselves.

Serving an underage individual can result in one year in jail, along with a minimum $500 fine. A repeat offense could result in a minimum of a $2,000 fine.

Since 2021, only two people have been arrested for illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor as of early August this year. If the underage individual suffers from bodily injuries or death from the alcohol the bartender serves, the bartender could face up to 3 years in prison and $25,000 in fines.

Two people were arrested for delivery of alcohol to a minor and five were arrested for sales to intoxicated subject or a minor. 33 were arrested for presence of minors in a liquor establishment, and six of them occurred at KAMS on the same day in September last year.

Party culture trends undermine city ordinances, creates unsafe situations

Underage drinking is no secret on campus, but fines and arrests have sharply declined in the past few years. Some local bartenders said a cultural trend called “passbacks” turned Joe’s Brewery, often considered a “freshman bar”, into a hotspot for minors.

Passbacks are when students use other people’s IDs to enter the bar, regardless of how similar the two individuals look to one another. The idea is that as long as a real 19-year-old ID is shown, the individual is let in. The section on unlawful use of ID in the Champaign Municipal Code forbids this.

“When officers ask offenders why they sought to use a fake ID, the vast majority report that they got it to be able to get into bars underage or obtain alcohol while under the age of 21,” Ward said.

While this may be considered beneficial to those who are too young that still want to participate in drinking or party culture on campus, one bartender who works at Joe’s Brewery said it creates an “overwhelmingly underage” drinking environment to work in. 

The bartender, a sophomore, said they feel pressure on the job often. 

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind while I’m working,” they said. “I mean, you really have no choice and there’s not a ton of police raids, so you just kind of [serve] anyway. But on weekends when we know police raids are happening, I won’t serve anyone unless they have a 21-year-old wristband.”

Management at Joe’s said they work hard to stay in compliance with the law “while maintaining a safe, fun environment” for students to socialize.

“We largely have a student customer base and we are constantly subjected to challenges to our system,” Joe’s management said in an email. “However, Joes takes the issue of fake ID’s very seriously and we record every ID used on entry. If a bartender serves an underage customer without checking their age they are fired immediately.”

They said IDs are saved automatically for at least 60 days without being backed up on the bar’s network video recording system.

Notable weekends include Unofficial, a staple event for bar goers even beyond campus, and Homecoming weekend. Both of these celebrations lead to floods of people at the campustown bars, and these weekends any individual must be 21 and showing a wristband in order to actually drink. 19-year-olds can still enter the bar, though. 

These weekends are well-known for police raids for this reason. Isabelle Broughton, a sophomore bartender at The Red Lion shared how the bartenders handle their job differently during these weekends. 

“We know there’s a much higher chance of police raids happening since the legal age is enforced so we only give out drinks to people with 21 wristbands,” she said. “It’s definitely not worth the sales to get in trouble for something so serious.”

Bar management can have a lot of impact on how the bar handles underage drinking. While there are the professional managers from the companies that own the bars, several students are also considered managers of their establishment. Jade Harris, a senior head manager at KAMS, said she loves her work, but has had run-ins with underage drinking causing other incidents.

“Well, KAMS is one of the bars on campus that actually enforces the 19-year-old entrance age, unlike Joe’s or something. But, there’s still definitely a lot of underage drinking within the bar,” she said.

When working one night, Harris said that she noticed a non-employee wander into an employee only area. After explaining to the student that they had to go back out to the main bar, the student became violent and aggressive towards Harris.

“It was honestly terrifying, since the student was obviously drunk and I was not only sober, but also a lot smaller than him,” Harris said. “Thankfully a door worker came and broke it up, and the student ended up being kicked out and banned from KAMS for life.”

Harris, who oversees safety in the bar and monitors tabs, said she thinks underage drinking really only plays into bar violence when the person is overly excited to be old enough to enter KAMS.

“The kid who assaulted me was celebrating his 19th birthday,” Harris said.

Campus police emphasize education over enforcement

University of Illinois Police say the main concern with underage drinking in campustown actually does not have to do with as much of the actual age of the individual, but rather the level to which they are drinking to. 

Patrick Wade, senior director of strategic communications, said the department has certain safety concerns in mind when enforcing drinking-related issues and crimes.

“Drinking to excess is what we really focus on,” Wade said. “We, for the last year or so, have not done a lot of underage drinking enforcement because our focus really is more on education.”

Wade, who helps work on educational seminars for students, said the level of alcohol consumption and keeping friends safe are two major topics that he emphasizes when educating students. 

“I think the fake ID offense is a lot more serious than an underage drinking offense,” he said. “An underage drinking offense is basically the same as a traffic ticket, so you get your fine, you pay it, you’re done.”

He said fake IDs can be a criminal offense in addition to an ordinance violation, and because of the potentially serious consequences, the department focuses more on fake ID enforcement than underage drinking. Data from Jan. 1, 2016 to March 2, 2022 shows university police arrested six people for false ID possession and one person for unlawful use of ID.

COVID-19 also played a part in the decrease of underage drinking cases. Wade explained that due to the lower number of students on campus, there was an inevitable decrease in drinking overall.

The pandemic wasn’t the only time where there wasn’t as much bar activity. Wade said there used to be a much larger group of students celebrating events like Unofficial at the bars compared to now, which resulted in more policing of the bars in the past than there is today on those weekends.

“We had a very different approach to Unofficial in the past, so lately Unofficial has been honestly pretty tame, and is comparable to a Halloween weekend for example,” he said. “In the past, when Unofficial was kind of at its height, we would have hundreds of police officers out in the street as kind of a deterrent effect because we would have thousands of students and visitors coming into our town.”

Although the data received only illustrates the past few years, Champaign Officer Ward said fake ID use by university students has decreased in the past decade.

“Over the past ten years, our officers have seen the number of University students attempting to use fake IDs decline. The numbers reflect that our students are behaving more responsibly. This is also illustrated through the steady and significant reduction in out-of-control drinking injuries associated with events such as Unofficial St Patrick’s Day in recent years,” Ward said.

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