Supreme Court rules on teen drinking law

Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to revoke the drivers licenses of minors cited for drinking alcohol unless the state follows the due process required in criminal prosecutions.

The 4-0 decision means the state, if it pursues license revocations, must provide public defenders for minors who need them.

That's a potentially expensive proposition, said Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general. Even though minor consuming recently has been a violation without possible jail time and not a crime, minors also would be entitled to a jury trial under the court ruling.

''It throws into at least temporary disarray a fairly important state program that keeps minors from drinking,'' Guaneli said Wednesday.

The ruling, issued Friday, upholds a decision by Superior Court Judge Eric Sanders of Anchorage, which was appealed by the state.

The case involves the arrest of Patrick Niedermeyer for underage consumption of alcohol on July 4, 1995. The minor's license was suspended automatically upon his arrest, even though there was never any allegation that Niedermeyer had driven after consuming alcohol or intended to drive on the evening of his arrest, according to the court opinion written by Justice Alexander Bryner.

This tenuous connection between consumption of alcohol and general fitness to drive makes license revocation punitive rather than remedial, according to the opinion.

While Bryner acknowledged a statistical link between underage drinking and careless driving, he concluded: ''Naked numbers cannot predict the conduct of any individual driver; they do not address the specific circumstances of Niedermeyer's case; and they say nothing concerning his personal driving behavior. Therefore, administrative license revocation is 'criminal punishment without criminal process,''' Bryner wrote.

Guaneli of the Department of Law said the Knowles administration is deciding how it will respond. License revocations that have been appealed now will not go into effect, although other revocations stand, he said. Fines imposed under the minor consuming law are still valid, he said.

Matthew Felix, director of the Juneau office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said he would encourage legislators to find a way to tweak the law so that administrative license revocations could continue.

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