George Pfromm II
Leah Johnston, a Reed College student, was looking forward to celebrating her 21st birthday the way so many of us have: with lots and lots of beer. Coincidentally she turned legal two days before classes started, just as hundreds of students were returning to town. To celebrate, she bought three kegs and invited friends to her house near campus, anticipating her first night of legal drinking revelry. But what Johnston didn't realize is that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) would be crashing the party.

Yes, school is back in session, which means high season for the OLCC. More than one-third of the liquor commission's enforcement efforts target college and high school students. Last year, the OLCC upped their enforcement and, this school year, seems to be continuing on that trend. Throughout the last academic year, students complained that the OLCC's basic enforcement went way beyond handing out tickets and bordered on harassment and the violation of basic civil rights. And, if how the OLCC handled Johnston's party is any indication, it doesn't seem like the OLCC learned their lessons last year.

Two weekends ago, OLCC agents crashed Johnston's party in a fashion akin to a major drug bust. Allegedly, according to Reed students at the party, the OLCC sent in an undercover female officer to pose as a new freshman student. A few hours later, accompanied by Portland police officers, OLCC agents wore flak jackets and referred to their presence at the party as a "raid," even though by the time OLCC agents arrived, the kegs were already dry and the party was breaking up. Several students were ticketed, including at least one 20-year-old for simply being on the premises, even though he was not drinking. Johnston was fined $271 for providing alcohol to minors.

Students in attendance said that the police officers were "amazing" and "really nice." But, they said, the OLCC agents were just the opposite, acting more like jackboot thugs. Reed student body president Dan Denvir described OLCC agents as seemingly "harried by the same insecurities as mall rent-a-cops."

Such descriptions echo those from students a year ago. For example, at the normally sedate University of Portland campus, last September an OLCC officer tried to violently kick down a locked door when he heard loud music playing in a freshman dorm room. Frustrated with his lack of results, the OLCC agent ordered an RA to unlock it, an action that clearly goes against campus policy and basic criminal procedure. Without a warrant or suspicion of imminent danger, a law enforcement officer is not allowed to break into a room.

When the door was finally opened, the inspector discovered the room was empty and that a CD player had simply been left on at full blast. Undeterred, he then began to rifle through the students' belongings, eventually finding several beers in a small refrigerator. He left each of the two absent roommates minor-in-possession tickets.

From the police and OLCC's standpoint, patrolling campuses for underage drinking is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's obviously the highest density of 18-20-year-olds in the city. Ever since the mid-'80s, when the drinking age leapt from 18 to 21, college campuses have been an uncomfortable mix of legal and non-legal drinkers.

But many students in Portland feel as if law enforcement officers are taking advantage of their vulnerable position. Most students are not fully aware of their legal rights, nor do they have the willingness to question law enforcement officers about their tactics, especially when the students are technically breaking a law.

In the most recent "bust" at Reed, an OLCC spokesperson denied that they would have used an undercover agent to infiltrate Johnston's party. However, the OLCC commonly uses undercover agents and underage teens in sting operations against grocery and liquor stores. At least two students witnessed the alleged undercover agent at the party, posing as a student, and then later saw the same woman return with OLCC agents and flash a badge.