Fake IDs, clandestine pre-gaming, house parties in dingy basements: All have become near rites of passage for restive Westchester teens. For most, though, the legal repercussions of underage drinking—and the use of false proof to enable it—remain muddled, shaken, and strained through hearsay and rumor.
Teenage consumption of alcohol, and, subsequently, the fake-ID market, has blossomed in the last decade. According to a 2008 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 39 percent of current 8th graders, 58 percent of 9th graders, and 72 percent of 12th graders have tried alcohol.
A study by the University of Missouri showed that in high school, 12.5 percent of the students carry fakes, while nearly a third of college students do by their fourth semester.
They’re so common that even those who have them don’t necessarily think about what they mean. “At parties, the running joke was comparing licenses from different shops in Greenwich Village,” says Tiernan*, a 19-year-old Mount Kisco resident. “You’re part of a group.”
One source for fabricated driver’s licenses is backroom operations at New York City head shops. Prices can range from $20 to $200, depending on the grade of top-shelf garnishes, including thick lamination, authentic holograms, and scannable barcodes for a hard-to-fake state.
But what are the repercussions for the average prom-going, flask-wielding student? Possession of a fake driver’s license is a misdemeanor—Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the third degree. “[What we’re talking about] is a Class A misdemeanor that carries with it a maximum one-year sentence,” says White Plains-based attorney Michael Litman.
But charging and prosecuting are two
different things, and, according to Liz Trendowski, a dram shop and liquor liability expert with Pennsylvania-headquartered Robson Forensic, Inc., these cases aren’t taken as seriously in court. “Criminal courts are really overloaded with serious crimes, and some kid using a fake ID to get alcohol isn’t a serious crime,” she explains.
Litman corroborates, saying, “Generally, no one ever gets [the maximum sentence], especially a kid with no prior offenses. On an initial charge, the worst case scenario is a reduction to a disorderly conduct violation, which is sealed, so it shouldn’t show up on record.”
In reality, it seems bars and liquor stores shoulder the brunt of the liability. With cause, the State Liquor Authority can revoke a business’ liquor license, and police can issue a summons to or arrest an individual—a deli clerk, bar owner—and charge him with a misdemeanor, or issue a summons to/charge the business entity for selling to minors.
On the other side, law enforcement has stiffened post-9/11 on forged documentation. In 2011, a White Plains teen was arrested and charged with three felony counts for producing 60 fake Maryland and Virginia licenses; nearly all of the 20 sold to Quinnipiac University students alone were recovered in an amnesty program. Still, the goal was getting the IDs off the streets, not putting youths behind bars.
“The DA here in Westchester tries to work out a deal in most cases,” says Litman. “It really depends on what other charges it’s in conjunction with. They’re more concerned with things like DWI than fake-ID conviction,” he says of the office that, in 2002, under then-District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, called for young persons to turn in their fakes or risk revocation of their real driver’s licenses, or even jail time.
“Often, kids are given the benefit of the doubt and may have to do 25 hours of community service or some such thing,” Litman expands. “It’s not that the DA is looking the other way, but that they’re trying to resolve the issue without negatively impacting kids’ futures with a criminal record.”
If tried as an adult, as persons 19 years of age or older are, that future is very much at stake. Even for youthful offenders, the stigma of arrest and a possible court appearance is a near-promise. But misdemeanor convictions (infrequent as they may be) are a different ballgame altogether: permanent, public, and easily viewed by colleges, potential employers, and anyone else performing a standard background check.
Usually, the average underage forged-ID owner is able to scrape by with a $500 to $800 fine or a community service mandate—at least the first time, says Litman. “Do it again, and they’re not so forgiving.” Even when it comes to one-time offenders, he warns, sealed violations shouldn’t [show up on record], but it is not a definite that it won’t.”
“I’ve never really thought about what would happen if the police caught me,” admits Tiernan. Despite the risks, for most teens like him, it seems, the merriment flows on.
* Not the subject’s real name