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Underage Drinking in New Jersey – Tragedy at Rutgers

As a New Jersey criminal defense attorney who maintains a practice in East Brunswick, in Middlesex County, I have represented more than my fair share of Rutgers students from both the Piscataway and New Brunswick campuses over the years. Usually it’s the same litany of charges: Noise violations, disorderly conduct, the very rare simple assault charge, drinking in public, urinating in public, possession of small amounts of marijuana, underage possession of alcohol, and… underage drinking. Summonses that range from ordinance violations, to disorderly persons offenses. Not very serious. I confess that most of the time I’ve had a fairly casual attitude towards this type of behavior, assuring nervous parents retaining me for their children that these types of incidents are very common amongst college students, and that I’m very good at getting them worked out in court. It’s not that I don’t take these cases seriously, I do. I know full well that at the end of the day, moms and dads don’t want their college aged children to have a record for behavior that was really nothing more than a momentary lapse of judgment. I can certainly understand that, and as an attorney, I take that responsibility seriously. Perhaps that is why, personally, I’ve had that casual attitude, viewing these incidents as nothing more than foolish behavior, combined with confidence in my ability to resolve these matters successfully. On September 21, 2014 sophomore Rutgers student Caitlyn P. Kovacs passed away due to what is believed to be acute alcohol poisoning. She was only 19.

New Jersey statute 2C:33-15 Possession, Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages by Persons Under Legal Age, typically called underage drinking, is a disorderly persons offense. Like all disorderly persons offenses it carries a statutory maximum penalty of 6 months in jail, and a $1,000 dollar fine. The statute imposes a mandatory minimum fine of $500 for a conviction. Typically, however, I am able to show a judge that my client has many positive qualities, that the incident was a one time event due to a momentary flaw in reasoning, and am able to have the charge downgraded to a city ordinance which is not regulated by the 2C criminal code. With that resolution, my client can keep a clean record, and truthfully answer on job or school applications that they have never been convicted of a crime. The death of Kovacs, who was drinking at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity located on College Avenue in New Brunswick, has rocked the campus.  Indeed, it is a tragedy that is difficult to comprehend. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office reported that she had passed out, and at some point “appeared to be in distress” when her friends brought her to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Her death is still under investigation.

Whether criminal charges will be filed in the case is unknown at this time. Furnishing Alcohol to Minors 2C:33-17 is a disorderly persons offense that could be brought, but whether the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is contemplating anything more serious is anybody’s guess. This tragic event has brought one fact into focus. Underage consumption of alcohol is pervasive on college campuses in New Jersey, and on campuses across the country. New Jersey ranks 8th highest in the nation for episodes of binge drinking, and 3rd highest for use of alcohol by students between grades 9 and 12, at 43 percent. Clearly, we have a problem. This behavior continues when young adults go off to school where rampant alcohol abuse and binge drinking not only flourishes, on college campuses it is expected. Getting as wasted as possible as fast as possible now equates with having a good time. I’m not saying young adults shouldn’t have fun when they go off to school. I’m not even saying libations should be stricken from the equation. What I’m saying, is that for our young adults, perceptions regarding alcohol consumption need to change. Sadly, sometimes it takes a tragic death like Caitlyn’s to open our eyes. I for one, am fully alerted to this fact, and intend to tailor the advice I give to underage clients and their moms and dads, to reflect the seriousness of the consequences that may result from irresponsible alcohol consumption.  I will tell them about Caitlyn P. Kovaks.

Additional Resources:

Underage Enforcement Treatment Center

States With The Most Underage Drinking, Fox Business, July 3, 2012

Death of Rutgers Student, 19, Under INvestigation, NJ.com, September 21, 2014

Death of Rutgers Sophomore Raises New Questions About Campus Drinking, NJ.com, September 24, 2014