What started in Tucumcari as "Augie's Law," a local attempt to fix what many see as a flaw in New Mexico's underage drinking laws, may be gaining support across the state.
Calls from local officials across eastern New Mexico, including Clovis and Portales, for a change just may give House Bill 420 the new life it needs to bring the change.
The flaw is this:
Under current state law, minors can be charged with buying or possessing alcohol or being legally drunk.
But if there are no witnesses, there is no specific provision for charging minors with consuming alcohol.
“For an officer to arrest a juvenile for drinking, they have to be in possession of the alcohol, or caught in the act of consumption,” said Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry.
Few dispute that underage drinking is a growing problem in the region or across the state.
“Teenage drinking is an issue that is very close to home,” said Jimmy Glascock, District 9 commander for the New Mexico State Police based in Clovis, Glascock’s district includes all of Curry, De Baca, Guadalupe, Quay, Roosevelt and parts of Torrance, Harding and San Miguel counties.
Tucumcari isn’t waiting for the legislature.
Spurred by the 2006 drowning of 12-year-old Augustine “Augie” Montiel in a drainage ditch — Augie’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit — the city commission is moving toward adopting its own ordinance to outlaw alcohol consumption by minors.
Just last Thursday, the commission voted to create a committee to study an ordinance drafted on behalf of Augie’s mother, Stella Chavez, by Donald Schutte, a former judge now practicing as an attorney in Tucumcari.
“The change will make it illegal for a minor to consume any alcohol, not just to the point of intoxication,” Schutte said. “Making this an offense will lead to citations, possibly arrest penalties. This will let the child see first-hand that there are consequences to their actions.”
Schutte said there was some indication the two teenage boys who were with Augie had been drinking for several years.
“I do believe that if there had been this type of law in place five years ago... my son might not have died,” said Chavez.
Curry and Roosevelt County law enforcement acknowledge the underage drinking problem in both counties. It’s hard not to.
A recent New Mexico Health and Public Education Department Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey found Curry County students are engaging in a number of dangerous behaviors — including drinking alcohol — at much higher rates than the state average. Similar results were also documented din Roosevelt County schools.
Additionally, a 2008 paper by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and University of New Mexico School of Law, noted alcohol consumption is a major contributor to the three leading causes of death in youths — motor vehicle crashes, suicides and homicides.
Glascock says underage drinking is a huge issue across eastern New Mexico. And he’s concerned the seasonal time for this type of behavior is approaching with the temperatures starting to warm.
“We are entering that time of year,” Glascock said. “Spring break is right around the corner, followed by proms, graduation and summer.
“We want to secure public safety by sending a message that we will not look away,” said Glascock. “It is against the law and you will be responsible for your actions.”
State police are aggressively pursuing and charging minors caught drinking, he said, and they are going after adults who buy alcohol for minors.
“It is against the law to buy alcohol for a minor and there needs to be strict accountability for those that violate this law,” Glascock said.
The Portales Police Department follows very specific state case law when dealing with minors in possession of alcohol, said Berry.
Berry said that if an officer locates a juvenile that has been drinking they are normally released into the custody of their parents.
"The officer can not let the juvenile go, it is a safety issue," Berry said. "The juvenile must be released to a parent or guardian."
Berry said that the process does not stop with the juvenile’s release. The officer will write up a warrant against the juvenile for allowing himself to be served. It is one way to get around the current flaw.
"There can be a variety of sentencing based on the juveniles history," Berry said. "The arrest, court appearance and penalties can be a wake up call for juvenile. They see that there is consequences for their actions."
Meanwhile, the state Legislature continues to look at H.B. 420.
"The bill would make any consumption of alcohol by minors a violation of state law," said Victoria Chavez, media relations officer for the Legislature.
Chavez said the changes in state law would allow a sobriety field test to be conducted by officers to determine if the minor is under the influence or has consumed any alcohol.
Currently the bill is before the House Judiciary Committee. At least one person is hoping it becomes law.
"I do not want my son's death to be in vain," said Chavez. "We need to do all that we can to ensure that no other children...die, and no parent loses their child because of alcohol.”