Officer Chris Dolby, a 15-year veteran of the Edgartown police force, sits in an unmarked police vehicle outside a package store, as he does on many evenings, sensing the rhythm of summer celebration. He watches intently from behind dark sunglasses, wearing a baseball cap and a plaid short sleeve shirt. Tradesmen stop off after work. Sunburned tourists stock up for an evening barbecue. A summer resident wheels a grocery cart full of beer, wine, and ice through the parking lot.
In these surroundings, underage drinkers who try to buy alcohol illegally are far more obvious than they seem to realize. They fit a very few patterns of behavior. They are almost immediately recognizable to officer Dolby’s experienced eye.
A young man in a black cap and a black tee-shirt exits the package store, carrying a case of beer and two grocery-sized bags. He looks over the legal drinking age of 21, but he instantly arouses Mr. Dolby’s suspicion, because he fits into one of those patterns. He disappears behind an obstruction, so Mr. Dolby backs up his vehicle until he can see the man loading the beer and the grocery bags into an older model gray mini-van. As the vehicle pulls in front of officer Dolby, he gets a good look at the driver. “He doesn’t look like he’s 21,” officer Dolby says.
Since the beginning of the summer, Edgartown police officers have recorded approximately 50 stops near package stores to investigate underage drinkers who try to buy alcohol. According to police, six of those stops resulted in arrests, and 16 more resulted in summons to court, where the teenagers will face various charges. In others, at the discretion of police, justice begins at home. “If possible, we get the parents involved,” Mr. Dolby said, “if we feel comfortable that a parent is going to deal with it.”
At the urging of the Dukes County Youth Task force, and sometimes with financial help from task force grants, Edgartown police chief Tony Bettencourt has stepped up package store surveillance this summer. The surveillance continues with funds from the Edgartown police department. Officer Dolby thinks the patrols are effective. “After a couple of weeks, word spreads,” he said. But the word did not spread to everyone.
Officer Dolby pulls out of the parking lot behind the gray mini-van with a driver that does not look 21. He flips on blue lights, accelerates quickly, and hits the siren. The mini-van pulls over to the shoulder. He has already checked the license plate in his on-board laptop computer, but he radios the plate number to the communications center. “Five, hotel, November,” he begins, using the familiar phonetic alphabet. “Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road near Hollybear Lane, three occupants.” Now the communications center knows where he is, just in case there is trouble. He approaches the driver side window carefully, with his badge clearly visible on a chain around his neck, and announces he is an Edgartown police officer.
Youth Task Force surveys over the past five years consistently show that the percentage of school age children who use alcohol is higher on the Island that state and national averages. A recent survey of local high school students showed that 55 percent used alcohol, significantly higher than 48 percent of all Massachusetts high school students who reported using alcohol, and the 43 percent of high school students nationwide. Of the Island students studied, the rate of high-risk drinking among high school students was reported at 39 percent, also significantly higher than students in the state and across the country.
For the purpose of the study, high-risk drinking was defined as five or more drinks in a row within a couple of hours, at least once in the month before the survey was taken.
The same study asked how kids get alcohol.
“High school kids identify someone they call a ‘packie,’ someone that buys for them,” Teresa Manning, youth task force coordinator said. “They say getting alcohol is not a problem, that’s sort of at the bottom of the list of their worries. That’s why all of our initiatives focus on access.”
Officer Dolby says local package stores do a very good job of checking the age of their customers, and identifying increasingly sophisticated fake identification. “The liquor stores have a lot to lose,” he said. “We’re lucky, we have a computer. They have to make a tough judgement call in there.” Four people who look young enough to question, walking through the parking lot with their purchases, does not raise much suspicion. Officer Dolby is confident the store clerks checked their I.D.
With blue lights still flashing, officer Dolby asks the back seat passenger to step out of the vehicle. In a steady, even voice, he says he was watching the package store, observed the passenger buy alcohol, and knows there is alcohol in the vehicle. A marked Edgartown police cruiser pulls up behind officer Dolby’s vehicle. A uniformed officer gets out. The passenger is asked to take the alcohol out of the car. He puts the case of beer and one of the grocery bags on the ground. He becomes agitated, bending over with his hands on his head. Officer Dolby returns to his vehicle, with identification from all three people in the mini-van. He checks the licenses on his computer to see if there are any warrants out, and to get a sense of whether the kids have been in trouble before. “The driver is 17 years old, so clearly he’s not allowed to have any alcohol in the vehicle,” Mr. Dolby said. “The kid we saw carry out the booze is 24 years old. The front seat passenger is 17. Their story is they were just giving him a ride.” He is beyond skeptical. “By the time you’re 17 and have a driver’s license, I’m pretty sure that you know you shouldn’t have booze in your vehicle.”
The 17-year-old driver will get a summons to appear in court, where he will likely be charged with transporting alcohol. It is illegal for a minor to have any amount of alcohol in a car he is driving. The 17-year-old passenger could be charged because there was alcohol in the car, a legal principle known as “constructive possession.” Officer Dolby decides not to charge him. The 24-year-old passenger who bought the alcohol is a trickier judgment call. He broke no law by buying the alcohol, or possessing it. If, however, he bought the alcohol at the request of the two teenagers, or he furnished it to them, he did break the law. He would likely be arrested or summonsed. Many people would conclude it is obvious that he did. Police officers are not allowed to jump to conclusions. They must have solid proof, if the charges are to stand up in court. “There was no evidence, no observation that the 24 year old bought it for them,” officer Dolby said. He decides not to charge the 24-year old, but confiscates the case of beer, and a 1.75 liter bottle of flavored whiskey. “That way, they’re not going to get in trouble with that alcohol tonight,” Mr. Dolby said. “It’s evidence.”
Officer Dolby returns to the stopped mini-van. He hands back the licenses and registration. In the same steady voice, he tells the driver and passengers that he is on patrol because the community has asked them to do more to stop underage drinking. He encourages them to tell their friends the package stores are regularly watched. The 24-year-old is concerned about getting his alcohol back. He is informed that he can claim it after the court proceedings are finished. The driver pulls back onto the road and drives off. Officer Dolby returns to the station. He tags the alcohol as evidence. He begins filling out computer forms that will generate the police report. On some nights, paperwork from the night’s package store patrols can take two hours or more. He takes the alcohol to another area of the station and begins opening evidence lockers. He looks in several lockers packed with confiscated alcohol, before he finds a large locker already half filled with cases of beer and liquor. There is just enough room for tonight’s evidence.
Underage drinking has been the source of heart wrenching tragedy on Martha’s Vineyard. The pain from deaths and arrests reverberates theough the community long after the accident scene has disappeared and remains with investigating officers.
Officer Dolby, 37, has two young children at home. He thinks about underage drinking a little differently as a parent and a police officer, than he did when he was a teenager. This work gives him a sense of satisfaction. He has seen the horror. “I’ve had to go to fatal accidents,” Mr. Dolby said. “Can I say I prevented one of those? You can’t say for sure.
“The booze is out of their hands. The minor transporting the booze is going to have to answer for it. I’m pretty sure they won’t be back at the package store soon.”