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Underage possession rate in Davison County took sharp spike in 2016

Nearly 200 young adults faced criminal charges last year as alcohol possession citations rose to a four-year high. The number of people ages 18 to 21 charged with possessing alcohol increased by 37 percent in 2016, according to the Unified Judici...

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Nearly 200 young adults faced criminal charges last year as alcohol possession citations rose to a four-year high.

The number of people ages 18 to 21 charged with possessing alcohol increased by 37 percent in 2016, according to the Unified Judicial System, with 199 people charged that year.

Under South Dakota Codified Law 35-9-2, any person under 21-year-old who purchases, attempts to purchase, possesses or consumes alcohol may be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable upon conviction by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The number of charges totaled 145 in 2015, 143 in 2014 and 149 in 2013. So far, there have been 17 underage possession charges in 2017. If that rate holds true, there will be 102 by the end of the year.

Davison County's total is high for South Dakota. According to UJS, the statewide average for underage possession charges in all counties in 2016 was 125.63. The average was 107.85 the year before.

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Davison County had the eighth-highest number of minor possession charges, with Minnehaha and Brookings counties taking the top spots. Despite more charges filed than 2015, the county actually moved down on the list, as it ranked seventh two years ago.

Mitchell Patrol Sgt. Terry Reyelts said last year's increase could be caused in part by procedural changes caused by the state's Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, also known as Senate Bill 73, which was passed in 2015.

After the bill's passage, Reyelts said officers started charging minors under the age of 18 with the 35-9-2 code, instead of a blanket charge that covered all juvenile offenses, labeling offenders as a child in need of supervision (CHINS).

"Before, we had kind of the blanket of a CHINS that covered any and all violations of law by somebody under 18," Reyelts said.

But the number of CHINS convictions for alcohol possession started declining before 2015. In 2012, there were 28 such charges. The number was halved the next year, and continued to fall to eight in 2014 and 6 in 2015. Last year, there was only one CHINS charge for alcohol.

Reyelts said the increase might also be attributable to the success of Mitchell's two post-secondary educational institutions, Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell Technical Institute.

Both schools have reported record-high fall enrollment, and Reyelts said when more underage students come to town, the number of minor alcohol offenses is likely to rise.

"When you get an increase in the population ineligible to drink, you're obviously going to have some problems like that," Reyelts said.

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Dry campuses

Dakota Wesleyan University reported an enrollment of 900 students in fall 2016, up five students from the year before.

DWU Director of Student Life Diana Goldammer said the university is a "dry campus," meaning no alcohol is allowed, no matter how old a student is, which she attributed to the school's United Methodist heritage.

According to a DWU security report, there were 20 alcohol violations on campus in 2015, the most recent information available. There were 38 in 2014, 44 in 2013 and 52 in 2012.

Goldammer said resident assistants interact with students on an informal basis throughout the year to discuss issues related to alcohol, but if there is a violation, Residence Life staff upholds a restorative justice policy, in which a student makes amends for the infraction, often through a research paper or community service.

"It's very case by case. We try to infuse our sanctions with common sense," Goldammer said, adding that all students are treated the same, regardless of age.

Mitchell Technical Institute's enrollment climbed to 1,274 in the fall, which is one student more than the year before. According to MTI's security and fire safety report, there was one arrest for a liquor law violation in on-campus housing in 2015, the most recent report available. MTI does not own any campus housing, but the school counts incidents at the Campus Tech Apartments contiguous to campus in its reports. There were no reported incidents anywhere else on campus since 2013.

MTI also has a zero-tolerance alcohol policy. Because the school has no residence halls and many students are under 21, Julie Brookbank, associate to the president, said there is no reason to allow alcohol on campus.

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"Without residence halls and without that kind of outside-of-the-work-day, we really have to focus on their safety and emulating a circumstance like most of them would find when they go to their future places of employment," Brookbank said.

Of course the statistics from both schools only address on-campus incidents, and Reyelts said police respond to house parties every year. He said some partygoers immediately comply with authorities. Others try to escape punishment, including a suspect a few years ago who jumped out a two-story window and broke a leg.

"It was one of those where you go, 'Well, not only do you get a minor, but you've also got a hospital bill,' " Reyelts said.

The number of underage possession charges may be up, but Reyelts said police haven't identified it as a specific infraction to target. Instead, officers continue to respond when they are called upon by the public.

"It's nothing that we're, 'targeting,' " Reyelts said. "It's something that has been brought to our attention, and like any other grievance, we look into it."

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