Jake, a senior at the University of Portland, turned 21 years old a few months ago--a milestone he thought would give him particular immunity against being hassled by the cops for drinking. But recently, he was enjoying a beer on his front lawn in North Portland, adjacent to the normally quiet campus. There was a student party nearby and police were patrolling the area. One officer saw Jake's beer and began to interrogate him.

Because he was of legal drinking age, Jake (not his real name) shrugged his shoulders and began to walk away. According to several student witnesses, the officer kicked out his legs from underneath him, leapt on him and pinned his knee into Jake's back. The officer then carted the 21-year-old student to the Hooper Detox Center where he blew a 0.065, roughly the equivalent of drinking one beer and below the legal limit for driving a car. The intake personnel at Hooper asked the officer why they brought the man in, and promptly sent Jake home.

In the past month, as students have returned from summer vacation and reoccupied the neighborhoods around Reed, Lewis & Clark, and the University of Portland, police officers and Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) inspectors have been vigilantly patrolling these areas for underage drinkers--a crime punishable by no more than a $300 fine. Although OLCC inspectors are not trained police officers, they are, in effect, deputized with the same powers as cops to ticket and bust underage drinkers.

As one indicator of the clampdown, an OLCC spokesperson admitted that their inspectors already had handed out 28 minor-in-possession (MIP) tickets at the University of Portland in the last month--a number that exceeds MIP tickets issued for the entire 2002-2003 school year. Moreover, students have complained that police and the OLCC have become increasingly abusive. One student claims an OLCC inspector told him to do 50 push-ups when the student scoffed at being given a MIP.

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.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," complained one student, who asked to remain anonymous. "I mean, they're treating us like some hardened criminals. It's just drinking, after all."

"Can't... Kick... Down... Door!"

Students have complained that basic enforcement has gone beyond handing out tickets and is bordering on harassment and a violation of basic civil rights. Two weekends ago, an OLCC inspector even tried to bust down a door at a freshman dorm at the University of Portland. In that incident, the inspector was patrolling the campus and handing out MIP tickets to several students who had been playing cards and drinking in their dorms, when he apparently heard loud music in one room. The door was locked and no one responded when the inspector knocked.

According to both students and public safety officials, the OLCC inspector began to violently kick at the closed door--so hard he damaged the lock and frame. Frustrated with his lack of results, he ordered an RA to unlock it; an action that clearly goes against campus policy and basic criminal procedure. Without a warrant or a 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. Apparently, 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 MIP tickets.

Our Moral Government

Students feel as if the OLCC is going out of its way to harass them. Nationally as well as locally, incidents of drunk driving among college students have not increased. And in fact, the rate of alcohol-related deaths on colleges has ebbed slightly over the past five years. Yet there seems to be a national trend to crack down on drinking of 19- and 20-year-olds. In Indiana, New York, and New Jersey, the state legislatures and law enforcement officers have specifically targeted this age group with sting operations and new laws. These efforts, however, focus entirely on underage drinkers purchasing and consuming alcohol; they do not mention drunk driving or health concerns.

Such motivation to curtail underage drinking is very different from 15 years ago, when the federal government forced states to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21. At that time, the rate of drunk driving among 18-21-year-olds had reached all-time highs. To force individual states to ratchet up the drinking age, the federal government threatened to take away funding for interstates if states refused to comply.

But the new push against 18-21 year olds seems to possess a much different motivation; it seems derived from a moral condemnation that "kids shouldn't drink." The state of North Carolina was recently awarded a $2.7 million grant from John Ashcroft's Department of Justice for "education" and "programs that target establishments that serve minors." It said nothing about drunk driving or alcohol-related deaths. Portland, Maine received a similar grant to establish a "tip hotline," where concerned citizens can phone in suspicions about underage drinking parties. In a local newspaper, the sheriff provided a baffling explanation for the new program. "Too often the message that teenagers get," he said, "is that drinking is okay, a rite of passage, and something that is acceptable if done responsibly."

But most students interviewed agreed that the stepped-up enforcement is nothing more than an inconvenience and does little to deter them. After some of her friends were cited by OLCC for drinking in a dorm room, one sophomore said the next time they will simply be more secretive.

"We'll just look for a new place to drink," she said cheerfully, "where they can't find us."