Underage Drinking and Using a Fake ID is a Crime, but That Does Not Stop College Kids
Everyone thought it would be the best April Fool’s Day prank Syracuse ever saw. In one motion, the 22 Syracuse Police Department officers would have seductively tossed their navy, Standard Issue pants into the buzzed Wednesday night crowd. And with humming walkie-talkies, threatening pepper spray, and shiny golden badges, they'd leap onto the bar, gyrate to a rousing rendition of “YMCA” by the Village People and tuck dollar bills away in their G-strings.
Interpreting a police raid as a holiday joke was odd, Alejandro Lovo remembered, given the bar’s reputation. Maggie’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, he said, was the spot for underage Syracuse University students to drink; they’d flash their fake ID for a hand stamp, then excuse themselves to puff a cigarette outside and pass the ID to another underage friend. But the 22 fully clothed and very serious SPD officers had uncovered this system. So at 12:30 a.m. on April 1, 2009, they asked 300 students, one by one, for the proper identification approximately 150 of them didn’t have. Lovo, who was 21 years old at the time, can’t get the scene out of his head. “Anyone without an ID was herded like cattle—they couldn’t leave without showing that they were of age,” Lovo said.
Maggie’s is no more. The fines from the raid have been paid. But despite the repercussions for owning a fake ID, many students couldn’t care less about the police prowling the streets. Walk into a bar on Marshall Street and it may seem like the Maggie’s raid was 25 years ago, not two-and-a-half.
It’s a value judgment many students have made in college. According to a study that appeared in the July 2011 issue of the journal, Addictive Behaviors, around one of every 13 incoming freshmen have a fake ID entering college; by the end of their sophomore year, a 2007 study by the American Psychological Association found, one in three undergraduates owned or could access a fake.
There’s a clash between the widespread cultural acceptance of underage drinking in college and the law—and underage drinkers often come out on top. A 2010 study in Addictive Behaviors found that only one in every five undergraduate fake ID owners said they’d been caught. But the students aren’t the only ones accountable for the underage drinking popularity in Syracuse.
THE MANUFACTURERS AND HAND-ME-DOWNERS
About three of every four undergraduates receive their fake ID from a relative, Greek kin, or another acquaintance, according to a 2010 report in Addictive Behaviors. More than one in three bought fakes on their own. (The math doesn’t add up because some paid the person they knew.)
Will Braxton* found his fake ID in his mailbox several days after he bought it. Braxton, a Syracuse University student, is 5’5” on a good day, has a boyish freckled face, and often sports a T-shirt emblazoned with the Super Mario 1-Up mushroom. He and his roommates emailed an order to a Canadian named Hade Hamade and mailed him a Hallmark birthday card with $80 stuffed inside. Braxton’s fake is impeccable, sporting holograms that other fakes don’t. “Imagine what a kid who can grow facial hair could do with a Hamade fake,” he said.
But it’s not always that easy. One Friday last winter, Ryan Wilson* drove with five fellow underage friends from Syracuse to New York City in search of shops displaying the word “photo” on the outside—a well-known code for “fake ID’s.” They found one in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Inside the small convenience shop on Canal Street, seven Chinese tourists wearing fanny packs took a family portrait in front of a cartoon backdrop of the Empire State Building. An old lady accepted two ten-dollar bills as her scratch-off winnings. And beside her, under the flickering fluorescent lights and with Chinese pop music playing in the background, Wilson almost had a nervous breakdown. “My heart was pounding,” he admitted. “What if this whole store was a trap and the police were right outside with cuffs and a squad car?”
His nerves disappeared as soon as the man across the counter handed him his newly pressed “novelty”—another code word—Pennsylvania ID. “Don’t get caught,” the clerk said in broken English, a sideways grin on his face.
THE OWNERS AND SELECTIVE ENABLERS—CALLED BOUNCERS
“That’s just not true,” said DJ’s owner Dean Whittles with a smile when asked about letting underage drinkers into the bar. “The city of Syracuse didn’t want the old Maggie’s to reopen,” Whittles explained. “I had to go to hearing after hearing just to get the place going again and I had to promise that I’d keep underage kids out.” He added, “I’d be stupid to let underage kids drink in here. Why make the same mistakes that Maggie’s made, in the same place Maggie’s made them?”
He leaves the confines of his back office, which is filled with signed SU basketball jerseys and sports memorabilia, and returns with what looks like a taser without a handle. He slams the device down on his desk, still grinning but looking a little flustered. It’s called the TokenWorks IDVisor Touch—and it’s some expensive license scanning equipment. Dean flips out his license from a worn leather wallet he pries from under the IDVisor and swipes his license: “Of age,” the IDVisor proclaims. Whittles gives each of his six bouncers one of the devices every night. In total, those bouncers clutch about $9,000 worth of identity checking technology.
But to get into the Marshall Street bar that Jeff* bounces and you’re subject to his discretion. Some criteria will matter more than scanning your ID or the age it displays—or your actual age, for that matter. Don’t remember your own “high school” mascot? Goodbye. Give your BlackBerry more eye contact than the bouncer? See you later. Have a New Hampshire ID, but don’t pronounce Concord, “Cahn-cahd”? No dice. (Jeff’s freshman year roommate was from Merrimack County; he has the accent down pat.) “I’m not going to get fired for you to have one good night,” he said matter-of-factly, folding skinny arms. But there are ways to get in. For example: if you know Jeff and Jeff knows you, you get to drink at Jeff’s bar—regardless of what his eyes see or an I.D scanner says.
Jeff said he’s not the only Marshall Street bouncer letting underage people pass. He lists Lucy’s, Faegan’s, and even senior spot, Chuck’s. DJ’s would not survive another raid, he maintained. “Half the kids in there aren’t 21.”
Lucy’s and Chuck’s did not respond to requests for comment.
THE LENIENT LAW
The complaints Syracuse Police Captain Shannon Trice hears could earn him a spot on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. Sometimes they’re about violent vomiting loud enough to wake people up; other times it’s about students urinating in public. Map out the scenes of these crimes and you’ll notice they occur at around two in the morning and form a dartboard shape around Marshall Street, Trice said.
Trice organized the 2009 raid at Maggie’s. He explained, as he tilted back and forth in a desk chair, that the raid was funded by an $18,500 grant as part of New York State’s “Operation Prevent,”—so it needed results. He handpicked 22 eager-for-overtime officers based primarily on a simple criterion: aggression. When the doors slammed shut and the lights flickered on, the officers couldn’t cave in to tears and just issue “warnings.”
Trice also picked half of the team because they looked young and could easily blend in. These officers started the night at Maggie’s with all the other patrons—except they weren’t the fraternity brothers, lacrosse players, or other characters they posed as. The other team members—the half who entered the bar, checked ID’s, and didn’t mind the tears—met them inside.
Syracuse Police Department officers have happily downgraded first-time offenders with a traffic violation instead of a five-year felony charge. “I get that getting a fake ID is a rite of passage for these kids, and we’re not looking to scar anyone for life,” Trice said. The motto about fakes around the station is “education through enforcement.” Students don’t go to jail for using one; they go to 555 South State St. for a four-hour, county-mandated alcohol education class called Project Responsibility at the Syracuse Justice Center—a glorified, longer version of AlcoholEdu. And they pay for it—literally. But many don’t listen to Sgt. Greg Bulinski, one of the course instructors. “The best possible scenario is education, and we all know that,” Bulinski said. “We can hope to reduce it, but we can’t ever hope of stopping it.”
* These names have been changed